Saturday, May 9, 2020





Dir. by - Reginald Hudlin 
Prod. by - Brian Grazer, Warrington Hudlin  
Screenplay - Barry Blaustein, 
David Sheffield
Story by - Eddie Murphy 
Director of Photography - 
Woody Omens
Edited by - Earl Watson, 
John Carter, Michael Jablow 
Production Design - 
Jane Musky
Music - Marcus Miller
Run Time: 117 mins.  
Release: 7/1/1992

Production Companies - Imagine Entertainment, Eddie Murphy Productions
Dist. by - Paramount Pictures

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)

     Uh huh! I can hear the voices already - "Yeah, BOOMERANG's a funny movie and all, maybe even a damn good one; but the 'Changing the world' thing is a bit much, isn‘t it?". Well, ... not really. Now, hear me out. I remember a couple of occasions, both many years ago when I worked at a large Philadelphia video store. One was when after years and years a co-worker finally saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and another when someone else (or it may have even been the same person, I don‘t remember) finally saw THE FRENCH CONNECTION. And both reactions were "Yeah, it's a good movie, BUT ...!". In the case of BUTCH & SUNDANCE the "but" was "... it's really just another buddy movie, though, isn't it?" and with THE CONNECTION it was " … ultimately just another gritty cop flick".

Director Reginald Hudlin / 2017

     My response to both were, "You're overlooking the fact that this genre didn't really exists as we now know it until ..." the aforementioned BUTCH & SUNDANCE and CONNECTION. For, while both were indeed damn good movies upon their initial releases, ... and critically acclaimed and the whole nine yards, yadda yadda, ... the passage of time went on to etch their respective places in cinema history as ultimately much more. They became benchmarks or touchstones - certainly in relation to the films which would follow in their wake. And only the passage of time can reveal a particular film as such. I  mean, hell, look today at 48HRS., LETHAL WEAPON, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE or whatever, and you can almost see the umbilical - pumping blood, oxygen and everything else - leading right back to the prenatal womb which is BUTCH & SUNDANCE.

     And, while (duh?) police procedural films certainly existed before THE FRENCH CONNECTION, most were either very noirish or at the very least highly stylized. Even films like BULLITT and SHAFT were very slick, cool and fashion conscious. But after CONNECTION crime films were given visual and tonal license to be down & dirty and realistically near pseudo-documentary profane (see the soon to follow THE TAKING OF PELHAM, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER and SERPICO); and they began to take place more and more in that “grey area” landscape where there existed a very thin line between the psychology of the cops and the crooks. And in this regard think of the later PRINCE OF THE CITY, BLACK RAIN, TO LIVE & DIE IN L.A. and others.

Changing the cinematic vernacular:
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971 / bottom)  

     Similarly, while it may be hard to remember almost (Wow!) 30 yrs. later!!!, Reginald Hudlin's BOOMERANG was very much a similar (what I like to call) "fulcrum shift" film. In this case it was a game-changer in the acceptance by a major studio of African-American characters in a film by an African-American director which became a mainstream hit for that studio. Now, does being a financial hit make a film a classic or "fulcrum shift" pivot point? Of course not. But (and this is the really important part here) BOOMERANG's success would help to insure that other such mainstream films would be made by other African-American directors in the future. Films like Forest Whitaker's WAITING TO EXHALE, Malcolm Lee's THE BEST MAN and all the way up to Tim Story's BARBERSHOP - wherein the lives and lifestyles of workaday African-Americans (and not just super cops or young people attempting to escape the horrors of the 'hood) became known to the rest of the world. Now, while this may also be hard to remember, this was not always the case. Yeah, even as recently as 30 ago.


     Keep in mind that when it comes to color, … and while there is still (I mean, let's be realistic) more than a fair share of ignorance and prejudice walking around in Hollywood's halls of power, the color which in the end most encourages or discourages the average studio isn’t necessarily black, white, red or yellow, but ultimately green … or the lack thereof. Combine that with the famous film industry axiom that "It's always easier and safer to say 'no'", and you've got the recipe as to why for far too many years far too many studios fell back on the oft repeated mythical b.s. safety net mantra that "Movies by ethnic filmmakers aren't big hits with crossover audiences".  BOOMERANG finally took that excuse (and that's all it was all along) away. 

The members of the First Artists production company -
(L to R) Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier

     What about something like Gordon Parks' SHAFT or the comedies of Sidney Poitier (UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, LET'S DO IT AGAIN, etc.)? Well, not to drift too far off the subject, ... though in reality it actually isn't, ... SHAFT was made by a studio - MGM - on it's last gasping breath, and during a time where many studios on the brink of receivership were trying every "Hail Mary" gambit they could think of once the small-budgeted and youth-oriented EASY RIDER knocked things outta the park.  And the Poitier films were actually the product of the First Artists production company founded by Poitier, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman specifically to make films which major studios originally didn't want to get behind - among them THE GETAWAY, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, UP THE SANDBOX and POCKET MONEY. The First Artists films (including Poitier's) were then distributed by Warner Bros., but not initiated by them.

The Eddie Murphy "Golden 80s Trifecta" of (L to R) 48HRS. (1982),

     Moving later down the line some might point (as did many studio execs back then) to the huge piles of green raked in by earlier Eddie Murphy films like COMING TO AMERICA, the aforementioned 48HRS. and BEVERLY HILLS COP as examples of "black films" which beat BOOMERANG to the punch in that regard. But a) the Murphy characters in those films were more highly stylized, tropish and / or very genre-based - which is to say not realistic, ... or even as in the case of COMING TO AMERICA a deliberate fairy-tale concoction of sorts. And b) all of those films were (and, yeah, I know I’m running the chance of getting into potentially sticky ground here, but this is very important) by white filmmakers. In fact it was this particular aspect which made many studio execs at the time feel the films were safer and less risky. 

     No! I don't hold with the belief that only people of color should make films about people of color, or that films about any people should only be made by a filmmaker from that same group of people. But I do believe a member of a particular group can often bring to a film a great many more little known insights and observations which someone not of that group can bring. Insights and minute cultural details (of both small and large significance), the existence of which the non-group person may not even be aware.

(top) SMOKE SIGNALS (1998 / dir. - Chris Eyre),
(bottom) THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (2010 / dir. - Lisa Cholodenko)

     As such / and for example one of the many great things Clint Eastwood's FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006) does is to paint a vivid portrait of a Native American (real life Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, portrayed by Adam Beach) caught between ethnic assimilation and racial prejudice in America. But Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre's 1998 film SMOKE SIGNALS (also starring Adam Beach) does it even better, ... and with a great deal of humor to boot. And while films by non LGBTQ directors like PHILADELPHIA (from Jonathan Demme) and AMERICAN BEAUTY (courtesy of Sam Mendes) feature sympathetic / positive depictions of LGBTQ characters, a film like Lisa Cholodenko's HIGH ART (1998) or THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010) feature (c’mon, let's face it) much more well rounded / people-next-door-type depictions. All of which brings us back to Reginald Hudlin's BOOMERANG. Whew!

     BOOMERANG's romantic comedy premise is fairly simple and "pick your era" malleable. So malleable in fact it's been repurposed, retro fitted, ripped off (take your pick of "r"s) countless times in numerous BET, Will Packer, Tyler Perry and other films since. In a nutshell "A Playa Gets Played ... and learns a lesson from it". Specifically in BOOMERANG Murphy portrays uber successful New York ad exec Marcus Graham - notorious for mackin' on and seducing the hottest women in the city, then loving and leaving them. Y'know, as some used to say back in the day, “He‘s all about the ‘Hit it, then git it!’”. That is until both his professional and personal lives are turned upside down when his agency is taken over by a larger corporate concern, and he finds himself working under (in more ways than one - haha!) his new superior (Robin Givens), who is very much the female version of Marcus.

     One of the many things BOOMERANG does well - and which many didn't expect - is that it refuses to be "The Two-Hour 'Eddie Murphy Comedy Hour'". While Murphy's Marcus is the central character, the film really is also something of an ensemble piece where all of the supporting players get their time in the narrative / character arc sun. They include Halle Berry - who had earlier roles in JUNGLE FEVER, STRICTLY BUSINESS and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, but who here burst forever into the hearts of an entire generation; Martin Lawrence, David Allen Grier, the aforementioned Givens, Grace Jones (and who the hell knew beforehand that she could be such a great comedienne, here spoofing Grace Jones?!), legendary actor / choreographer Geoffrey Holder, Eartha Kitt, Tisha Campbell (who'd later co-star with Lawrence in his long running tv series) and the irrepressible John Witherspoon ("You've got to co-ooordinate!").

     A young Chris Rock even gets in a few great lines as a mail room worker desperate to hustle his way up the company ranks. And there’s a hilariously loving shout-out to barrier breaking African-American director Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) as a film editor who partakes in an Abbott & Costello-like verbal routine over whether or not a piece of footage contains a view of a woman’s nipple or just the shadow of one. Haha!

Among BOOMERANG's legendary "Old Guard":
(L to R) Eartha Kitt, Geoffrey Holder, John Witherspoon, Melvin Van Peebles

     By the way, in case that murderer’s row cast line-up didn’t tip you off, BOOMERANG is in some respects very much a loving cinematic passing of the mantle from an earlier group of barrier-breaking black artists (Kitt, Holder, Witherspoon, Van Peebles, et al) to the (then) young up-and-coming one charged with carrying on their legacy. In retrospect today it is now also a bittersweet passing of that mantle as within that group of older artists all but Van Peebles have since passed away.

Among BOOMERANG's (at the time) up-and-coming "New Guard":
(L to R) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, David Alan Grier, Tisha Campbell

     While contemporary and R-rated, director Hudlin wanted to pattern BOOMERANG after the smooth old-school vibe of a Cary Grant film ... with a dash of Truffaut's JULES AND JIM inherent in the love triangle between Murphy, Berry and Grier. And as such - filmed in New York during the winter months, y'know, so the cast can cut striking images in those bad-assed winter coats - everything from BOOMERANG's cinematography (courtesy of Woody Omens) to production design (the legendary Jane Musky), score (by funk-jazz maestro Marcus Miller) and more screams near-James-Bond-cinematic elegance: the kind where the story's setting becomes every bit as important a character as any portrayed by the cast members. And released during the 4th Of July holiday week alongside Penny Marshall's A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (another "fulcrum shift" film deserving it's own posted piece at another time), BOOMERANG was a hit with both audiences and critics.

Hudlin and Murphy on the streets of NYC

     There were, however, a few (hey, let's call them what they were) genuinely racist digs at the film. I particularly remember one controversy which erupted at the time wherein one critic (thinking they were being witty, I guess) referred to BOOMERANG as a "fantasy film" in that it featured very successful African-American business people. Hudlin responded by pointing out how such a comment displayed the ignorance many had (and still do have) of the history of black-owned businesses and black business people in America - from ignoring or not being aware of say the Johnson's Products corporation (an inspiration for the beauty products firm which takes over Marcus' ad agency), to the legendary Madam C.J. Walker - the first black female millionaire in America, and from whom Eartha Kitt's "Lady Eloise" character is partially inspired.

     Interestingly this same kind of "ethnic presumption" is exemplified in the film itself in a scene where Marcus (Murphy) and his two closest friends and business compadres - Tyler (Martin Lawrence) and Gerard (David Alan Grier) - shop at an Upper West Side men's clothing boutique and are not only tailed throughout the establishment by a suspicious salesperson. But when Tyler asks the price of a jacket, he's told "We don't have layaway". When the guys react to the comment in a justifiably offended manner, they're then told by the fearful employee in a "please don't hurt me" voice "We don't keep cash on the premises". The scene is both hilarious and enraging at the same time. And if you're an African-American there's a good chance it also has a tragic ring of familiarity to it as well.

     This is an example of that thing mentioned earlier: how "... a (filmmaker) member of a particular group can often bring to a film a great many more little known insights and observations which someone not of that group can bring; insights and minute cultural details (of both small and large significance) - the existence of which the non-group person may not even be aware". The fact that at the time of the film's release many non-African Americans found the scene shocking (though, yes, funny too as it was intended) proves the point of a certain part of the populace "not being aware" of certain things. As for the aforementioned critic's "ethnic presumption" in referring to Hudlin's film as "a fantasy" in which blacks are successful business people, Eddie Murphy himself took the particular journalist and others to task by penning a rare  op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks after BOOMERANG’s debut.

     The fact-of-the-matter of the day (as unfair as it was) is that until BOOMERANG most films from African-American filmmakers, ... the only films which seemed to find distributors (or at the very least the ones able to grab the media and awards season attention)... were the "Hood films" cut from the BOYZ 'N THE HOOD, STRAIGHT OUTTA BROOKLYN, SOUTH CENTRAL mode. Sure, there was the occasional art house exception like Julie Dash's visually elegant (and visually eloquent) DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), or Spike Lee's sprawling MALCOLM X (released later in '92 as well). But the fact is Dash never made another theatrical feature film after DAUGHTERS. And Lee couldn't get Warner Bros. to fully fund the 3 hour film he wanted to make. So he did the back-then version of crowdfunding by getting celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Prince to financially get behind his vision of the project.

(top) Julie Dash / DAUGHTERS FO THE DUST (1991),
(bottom) Spike Lee / MALCOLM X (1992)
     And as far as T.V. "back in the day" of BOOMERANG ... . Well, while during the era of the late 1960s / early 70s Civil Rights and Black Power Movements there had been proactive / self-determining black characters in shows such as JULIA, ROOM 222 and Norman Lear's THE JEFFERSONS, by the 1980s era of Reganomics and the rise of what some would call "Yuppie-ism", black characters - even the leads in TV series such as DIFFERENT STROKES, GIMMIE A BREAK and BENSON - were often either orphans adopted by "rich white saviors" or were domestics working for them. And even mainstream hits like THE COSBY SHOW and A DIFFERENT WORLD were considered (this phrase always gets me!) "unicorns" in that such a crossover success - even a huge one like COSBY at the time - was considered too rare to be thought of as a new commercial norm or lasting paradigm.

     The financial success of BOOMERANG, however (produced for $42 million and taking in $131 million), held it's own against other Summer of '92 hits such as BATMAN RETURNS, LETHAL WEAPON 3 and UNFORGIVEN, and signaled a change in the kinds of films black directors, writers and more were henceforth able to get into the mainstream. But it still wasn't an easy progression.

     I vividly remember Spike Lee's former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (MALCOLM X, JUNGLE FEVER, MO' BETTER BLUES, DO THE RIGHT THING) catching flack from a (I guess) well meaning / well intentioned white film critic who felt that after making a stunning directorial debut with 1992's violent Harlem youth drama JUICE starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur, Dickerson was "wasting his talent" on genre fare like 1993's SURVIVING THE GAME (a modern take-off on Richard Connell's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME with Ice T and  Rutger Hauer), and 1994's TALES FROM THE CRYPT  PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT.

Ernest Dickerson -
(L to R) JUICE (1992), SURVIVING THE GAME (1994),

     If I recall correctly Dickerson's response was to remind such self appointed "guardians of cinematic tastes" that African-American filmmakers can be (and are) just as diverse as their white counterparts; and similarly grew up loving to read classic novels and short stories such as Connell's, and comic books like those which inspired both the TALES FROM THE CRYPT tv series and his film. Y’know, reminding some of the critics at that time that we were reading, drawing, going to the movies and doing other things too as children, and not just dodging bullets and being beaten up by bad police.

     The statement evident in up-and-coming black filmmakers making such “popcorn flicks” - apart from the very pragmatic one that we can make a studio’s cash registers ring just as effectively as our less "melanin enhanced" cinematic brethren can - was that our lives and history consisted of both positive and negative aspects. And like any other filmmaker, African-American ones began to demand the right to tell all of those stories, and not just the ones a collection of Hollywood suits in a boardroom or pitch meeting thought were comfortably and commercially “urban“. I mean, look at the other important filmmakers who dove into those "less artistic" “popcorn” genres for the sheer pleasure of fun and homage - among them Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, Freddie Francis and others - all of whom also directed TALES FROM THE CRYPT stories by way of the tv series which lead to Dickerson’s theatrical film.

     No! BOOMERANG didn’t single-handedly, superhumanly alter the course of African-American filmmaking the way the Man of Steel all by his lonesome lifted that car over his head on the famous cover of ACTION COMICS #1. Uh, uh! It arrived during an era which was already seething and fermenting with a desire for change. And it’s success was a major catalyst, … an added reagent (if you will) which finally helped that fermenting dough to rise and take shape. One of the trends / movements which always heralds a major social change is a prevalence of satire directed towards a long existing societal norm or socio-political mindset - a norm which many come to believe needs to be torn down and rebuilt.

Changing the social mindset via satire -
(clockwise) YOU NATZY SPY! (1940), THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940),

     During the rise of Fascism in the 1930s / early 40s in Europe - a time when many in America held isolationist views and felt it wasn’t “America’s business” to protest and get involved; mostly as it would harm U.S. business interests abroad - satirist fired the first loud volleys against that Fascism in the form of The Three Stooges’ YOU NATZY SPY! (1940), Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), and Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - all of which, by the way, were criticized by many in the U.S. at the time as “stirring up trouble”. That is, of course, until Dec. 7, 1941, after which they were then considered “ahead of their time”.

Changing the social mindset via satire -
(clockwise) IN LIVING COLOR (1990), I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA' (1988),
     In the late 1980s / early 90s one could observe a similar fermenting of not only “artistic disenchantment”, but a general societal disenchantment / lack of tolerance with the current status quo in regards to the growing stereotypical depiction of African-Americans in film, television, news and more. And the creative ferment backlash against that mindset first began to make itself known via satirical outlets such as the ground-breaking sketch comedy series IN LIVING COLOR (1990 - ’94), and films like Robert Townsend's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE ('87) and Keenan Ivory Wayans I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA! ('88) - all of which hilariously, and at times brutally, made mincemeat out of not only the popular media‘s depiction of blacks in America at the time (lampooning everything from the blaxploitation images of the 70s through the gang-banger flicks of the 80s), but also skewered the stereotypical images many blacks in America had come to believe about themselves.

     Hudlin’s BOOMERANG cleverly bridged comedy and romance (and, yeah, no kidding - even a little drama!). And it’s financial success served as a “See, we told you so” back up / justification / validation to the backlash which IN LIVING COLOR and the others had begun to stir up. It performed the “passing of the mantle” from the older generation to the next, and simultaneously set the stage in order that the next generation might take what it had inherited and carry it further in a more diverse depiction of African-Americans in both media and society from then onward.

     Now, did Hudlin, screenwriters Murphy, Barry Blaustein & David Sheffield and the others do / create all of this socially relevant “fulcrum shift stuff" consciously, ... deliberately? I honestly don‘t believe so. Generally speaking the average (and usually most effective) film artists aren’t those who are necessarily “trying to deliver a message”. Yeah, there are those “message films” which can and do strike a cord within the populace. But more often it’s those films which are just seeking to be entertaining - and in the midst of being entertaining happen to strike a nerve within the cultural / psychological zeitgeist - that ultimately end up as “sign posts” films within a particular era.

     This is because in seeking to entertain, the average creative individual tends to ask themselves “Hmmm? What’s really REALLY scary, romantic, funny, etc.?”. And the answer is usually highly subjective - dependent upon what’s happening outside that creative’s window at that particular time. As such what was funny, scary, romantic, etc. ten or five years ago (or even ten or five months ago) won’t necessarily be so now.

     In this regard Hudlin and Murphy’s BOOMERANG ends up both the culmination of a certain “fermentation of dissatisfaction” over an era, as well as the response to that dissatisfaction - a response which then served as a “fulcrum shift” point and launch pad into a new era. In the same way in which time is finally the one and only true litmus test of a crafted wine's structural quality (sorry, but a history of having worked in restaurants cause my analogies to drift there now and then - haha!), so has the passing of almost three decades set BOOMERANG apart as a seminal milestone in American film canon every bit as much as did earlier films such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, M*A*S*H, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, SHAFT, ENTER THE DRAGON, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and a handful of others - all of which in their own unique ways did the same exact thing in altering (a little or a lot) the course trajectory of American film which would follow in their wake.

     So, yeah, changing the world can be hilarious business.

     Well played, Playa!



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* New York Times - THE HUDLIN BROTHERS SET OUT TO PROVE BLACK IS BOUNTIFUL (7/26/92 - by Patrick Pacheco)

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Friday, March 27, 2020





Dir. by - Rob Bowman 
Prod. by - Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, 
Roger Birnbaum, 
Gary Barber,  
Screenplay - Matt Greenberg, 
Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka 
Director of Photography - 
Adrian Biddle
Edited by - Declan McGrath, Thom Noble 
Production Design - 
Wolf Kroeger
Music - Edward Shearmur
Run Time: 102 mins.  
Release: 7/12/2002

Production Companies - Touchstone, Spyglass Entertainment, The Zanuck Co.
Dist. by - Buena Vista Pictures

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)

_______ "Knowledge is the only weapon we've got left. 
In the beginning it was ignorance which destroyed us" _______ 

     In recent days countless millions around the globe forced to “shelter in place” at home due to the spreading coronavirus have not only found themselves rediscovering old fave pleasures like family meal times, reading, and tossing the ball around the backyard with the kids, but also, perhaps unsurprisingly, enjoying one which in less restrictive times might have been considered a lazy and irresponsible betrayal of adulthood, ... or at the very least the last Jay & Silent Bob-like refuge of the perenially "blunted"  - bingeing on movies for days at a time. Who’d a thunk it, huh? And among the most popular filmic subjects have been (no drum roll because ultimately it's “No duh!”, right?) those dealing with pandemics and global disasters. Netflix recently reported that on Friday March 20, 2020 alone the docu-series PANDEMIC: HOW TO PREVENT AN OUTBREAK, the CW mini-series CONTAINMENT, and the feature films OUTBREAK (1995) and CONTAGION (2011) topped it’s charts, with flicks like 2012 and WORLD WAR Z following closely behind.

Margaret Atwood / Rod Serling

     “No duh?” because this is not only what art does, but (more importantly) this is what art / the arts were always intended to do. It is the very reason for art's existence in all of it's facets. Yes, including the one-legged, buck-toothed, "bastard son of a thousand maniacs" offshoot of the family - film. Former Smithsonian / Renwick Gallery director Elizabeth Broun once oh-so-accurately stated that “Art is not always about pretty things; it’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how are lives are affected”. Rod Serling famously acknowledged that “… with THE TWILIGHT ZONE I knew I could get away with Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t”, and in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, THE HANDMAID’S TALE author Margaret Atwood - commenting on the eerie contemporary prescience of her 1985 novel in conjunction with the rising #MeToo movement - set things very straight, stating …

     “I’m not a prophet, let’s get rid of that idea right now. ‘Prophecies’ are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have". And about THE HANDMAID'S TALE in particular she added, "Sorry to have been so right”. OUCH!

     Speaking as a writer / screenwriter myself (and I believe for others too), we often stare out the window wondering what makes something genuinely scary, funny, sexy or whatever. And the answer to that question is usually what happens to be occurring outside that window on any given day. It’s all about context: how what was once not considered scary or “effective”, “deep” or “pertinent”, and what may have previously been written off as little more than “fanciful” or any number of other dismissive terms, can - in one instant / with one event - suddenly find itself pivoting on the dime into the exact opposite; and, not unlike Atwood’s HANDMAID‘S TALE, becoming “prophetic“, “observant“ or “perceptive“. Of course the “vice versa“ version of that holds true as well. And forgive one more example, but it’s the best of ‘em of all - a personal one Stephen King relates in his sprawling 1981 non-fiction look at culture, pop culture and more (it’s also perceptively funny as f**k too!) DANSE MACABRE.

Stephen King

     In one reminiscence the Maestro Of Horror relates how at age ten he and a group of friends eagerly piled into a local theater to see Ray Harryhausen’s EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. And they were enjoying the hell out of it’s escapist thrills - what with those awesome-to-this-day stop motion animated flying saucers descending from the clouds to obliterate Washington, D.C. - something to which Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY would tip it’s hat in far more grand fashion forty years later.

     Anyway, it was simple escapist fun until smack dab in the middle of said great death ray obliteration the film stopped, the house lights came up, and the manager took the stage with a grim look on his face, gulped and - feeling it was of the utmost importance and duty to do so - informed everyone that the Russians had just launched Sputnik into orbit, beating America into space, and that the satellite was most likely passing over the U.S. at that very moment. After the announcement the lights went back down, the film resumed, … and suddenly the idea of America being attacked from space was no longer innocent escapist “fun”. For little Stephen and his posse of Saturday afternoon movie hommies, in an instant EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS had morphed from a fanciful sci fi flick into a wholly unintended yet now very effective horror film. And it was all based upon context - on what was going on outside the proverbial window at that particular moment. 

TOP: Sputnik 1 launches (Oct. 4, 1957);
BOTTOM: EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS debuts (June 13, 1956) 

     Now, with that understood, I’ve never felt (and especially in the last few weeks) that films like OUTBREAK or CONTAGION, … or even earlier techno thrillers like 1971’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN or 1965’s THE SATAN BUG were the most accurate “pandemic” films. Don't get me wrong, they’re all phenomenal. But they tend to focus more on the inanimate “outbreak” itself; and this is fine. But I’ve always found to be more prescient, engrossing, perceptive or “spot on” (choose your term) the less obvious film examinations. Those which - like Rod Serling’s Martians - create a timeless “McGuffin”-esque stand-in. Those which don’t focus on the “pandemic” as the antagonist per se as much as on how the pandemic merely serves as a catalyst to the real contagion which is the reaction of the populace (large or small / microcosmic or macrocosmic) to the introduction of that strain, bio-invader, etc.

     As such, films I find to now be the most accurate, and by extension perhaps more "COVID-19 cathartic" in the sense of allowing us to exorcise certain unspoken (not just medical and scientific, but socially interactive) anxieties, are those such as John Carpenter’s THE THING, Frank Darabont’s THE MIST, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, and perhaps one of the most underrated, somewhat forgotten and, in retrospect, most eerily spot-on-the-money - Rob Bowman’s 2002 (what wiki amusingly categorizes as) “post apocalyptic science fantasy film” REIGN OF FIRE.

_______ "The only thing worse than a dragon ... . Americans!" _______

     If for the sake of arguing you want to talk non-genre films which effectively mine the "group psychology reaction to a pandemic or crisis" theme, you can very much toss those close-quartered Agatha Christie whodunnits into the pot - among them MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, DEATH ON THE NILE and TEN LITTLE INDIANS - where the unknown mystery murderer is the "pathogen". And you can surely superimpose John Ford’s FORT APACHE, and especially Ed Zwick’s 1998, pre 9/11 drama THE SIEGE (both where so-called / so believed socio-ethnic "outsiders" become the inciting catalyst for group paranoia and an examination of self) onto the paradigm as well.

     Hell, just substitute today‘s “forced to shelter-in-place” edict and a spreading virus scenario in place of APACHE’s “Little Bighorn”-inspired attack; and do the same for THE SIEGE’s inciting terrorist incidents in the Big Apple, and you've plainly got within these "old movies" versions of everything “today" and fascinatingly "up-to-the-minute reactionary” - from Donald Trump’s daily press conferences, to civilians rushing to horde goods, to a populace perhaps more keen on finding a scapegoat than a solution, and even the singling out of one ethnic group upon which to unleash a larger collective’s sense of fear, paranoia and pent-up hostility.

     It’s as surely evident in those aforementioned non-genre films as is Atwood’s “theocratic HANDMAID'S TALE nightmare” coming to all-too-accurate near fruition every night on our evening news. And, hey, recognizing these (I don’t think I risk disagreement from anyone in calling them) "societal warts" isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not if we can observe and - as the arts allows us to do - study and learn more about ourselves from our cinematic avatars / alter egos under those filmic “lab”-like conditions in the hope of avoiding the mistakes the fictional versions of ourselves make. Ultimately it is those mistakes which we alternately find dramatic, scary, funny and more. At any rate, in regards to their genre counterparts ...

     I’ve always felt science fiction, fantasy and horror to be an even more accurate representation / barometer of contemporary social anxieties because by the very nature of genre - wherein a larger-than-life and often surreal scenario is created in order to not necessarily address those anxieties directly - they ironically allow for both a more sub-consciously honest discussion of those anxieties by the film makers, and a more sub-consciously honest (though usually unspoken) response to them by the audience. In a certain way audiences and individuals are able to enter into a sub-conscious cinematic “dream state” where fears, hang-ups and non-verbalized trauma can be parsed out, sifted through and dealt with. This whereas a more direct addressing of those same traumas, et al can - and frequently is - met with an insistent denial that the trauma even actually exists.

     For support / proof of this notion refer to the various forms of present day art therapy - the roots of which can be traced back to aspects of Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS. And note how said therapy today is consistently and successfully used in the treatment and recovery of those suffering from war induced PTSD, sexual assault posttraumatic stress disorder and other deep psychological traumas. If that's all just a bit too heavy, okay. Then consider a more user friendly “simply cool-assed movie” example of the same, ... though on a national scale. Think back on the films of late 2001 and early '02, and of the dwindling box office in the days after 9/11 when many in the U.S. stayed home in fear; this fear and uncertainty not only driving an icy cold economic dagger into the heart of the film industry, but into that of the American consumer economy in general as well.

September 11, 2001

     Then think of one film in particular, Sam Raimi’s original SPIDER-MAN - the first major studio post 9/11 release (in May 2002) which featured a New York City under siege by a terroristic entity (here in the form of the Green Goblin), but which in the end - with the help of a masked representative of the common man and woman - emerges as a city which survives, overcomes and triumphs. This not unlike the film itself which became the top box-office grosser of the year, financially besting even the eagerly anticipated STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES until later that Christmas when nudged from the #1 spot by the second HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS entries. That first SPIDER-MAN film also rewrote the concept of the modern day summer blockbuster.


     It’s always been my belief that Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN provided an “eager to deal with the trauma” American public a masked (no pun intended) means of parsing out arguably it's most deeply ceded nationally traumatic nightmare since the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a mass scale emotional catharsis which more direct “terrorism on domestic soil” films (and damned good ones too!) like Andrew Davis’ COLLATERAL DAMAGE (released Feb. ’02) and the Tom Clancy adaptation THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (May ’02) didn’t allow because the public just wasn’t yet ready to deal directly and specifically with that subject. All of which brings us to REIGN OF FIRE. 

_______ "We can do this easy, ... or we can do this real easy" _______

     I’ve always loved REIGN OF FIRE, but admittedly originally it was more in that Stephen King-like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS / “10-yr.-old-boy-who’ll-never-grow-up”-gee-whiz!-I-love-the-smashing-together-of-genres-in-this-bad-assed-manner" sort of way.  Also not unlike the "Stephen King / EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS thing", however, my perception of the film changed (though with me over the years as opposed to a few moments caused by Sputnik) as I came to discover it's more (let’s call it) ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE / PLANET OF THE APES / TWILIGHT ZONE-like ability to cleverly, wittily (and now even disturbingly) exemplify a socio-political subtext which may have always been there, but which never had the catalyst applied (the “just add water” element if you will) which would make that subtext more obviously pronounced. I love when a film does this, ... and when we allow a film to do this, ... rather than placing it in a forever impenetrable and immovable bottle of preconceived, narrow-minded opinion.

REIGN OF FIRE dir. Rob Bowman

     Written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg, and directed by Rob Bowman (best known at the time for multiple episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, X-FILES and CASTLE, as well as the feature film X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE), 2002’s REIGN OF FIRE opens in (then) contemporary London where, during a renovation project deep within the bowels of the city’s Underground rail system, an ancient cave is breached and a dragon in uber hibernation is awakened and loosed upon the world.

     Yeah, this is straight-ahead pulp-type material of the QUATERMASS sort if there ever was. But, as with the best pulp material, it sets up a wonderful tabula rasa onto which any number of subtextual elements can be emblazoned.

     A montage of images, clippings and narration fills us in on later discovered facts: namely how long ago the dragon's kind, after exterminating dinosaurs on earth and thereby exhausting their food source, went into hibernation until a new source arose - mankind. Then, after that London Underground incident, and being unleashed once again upon the earth, they expanded from continent to continent like a rapidly growing viral plague and repopulated the planet. By 2020 when the rest of the film takes place (interesting date, huh?) - aided and abetted by mankind nearly wiping itself off the globe by using nuclear weapons in it’s war against the creatures - the dragons became the dominant species while small pockets of humanity learned to shelter-in-place in hidden communities, fearful and adhering to strict quarantines and martial law policies which if breached run the chance of exposing the remaining survivors to the plague that is the hungry hunter dragons.

     Responsible for such a hidden community in a retrofitted Northumberland castle is Quinn Abercromby (THE DARK KNIGHT’s Christian Bale) - who as a child watched his mother die in that Underground construction site that fateful day, and his trusted brother-like companion Creedy (300’s Gerard Butler). Within that quarantined community all is far from well, however, as a philosophical conflict has been growing over the years between those who feel the safest and wisest continued course of action is to remain in place, while others - mostly a younger generation tired of seclusion - seeks to break containment. Early in the narrative a small group of “containment breakers” rebelliously leave camp, and in so doing tragically gives away the position of the castle. The dragons, aware of a new and plentiful food source, then launch a series of nocturnal attacks on the increasingly beleaguered Northumberland battlements.

     But as if that weren't enough, the philosophical conflict between the Brits becomes worse - turning into a clash of national cultures when a small military unit of Americans who call themselves the “Kentucky Irregulars”, lead by the half-mad Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and his second in command Alex Jensen (GOLDENEYE’s Izabella Scorupco), arrive with a tank, helicopters and a Lockheed Galaxy battle cruiser aircraft, claiming that they’ve killed dragons around the world, and have now tracked the species Queen to her layer in London. Van Zan seeks to recruit Quinn’s people for what he believes will be the final battle between man and dragon. This while Quinn resists, ... and as Creedy finds himself emotionally and philosophically torn between the two leaders and their diametrically opposed courses of action.

     To call this a wild and woolly yarn is an understatement.

     Perhaps REIGN OF FIRE was a bit too wild and woolly for the box office. Not a financial success upon initial release, it wasn't helped by mixed reviews from critics - most of whom comfortably settled upon the notion that it was “well wrought yet mindless fun” and little else. But I’ve always disagreed. Perhaps not to the same degree, but in similar fashion to how long before the Columbine and other school mass shootings occurred I’d always interpreted Stephen King’s CARRIE as a thinly veiled (genre safe?) examination of the uncomfortable (and mostly then un-discussed) topics of school bullying and resultant exponential school violence, so had I always seen and interpreted Bowman’s “military vs. dragons” yarn as trafficking in that same "group psychology during a siege" territory as had the earlier mentioned John Carpenter’s THE THING, King’s THE MIST, and Scott’s ALIEN - all where a “pathogen” of some kind is introduced into a small community, and it’s presence causes the unleashing of long repressed and unacknowledged fears, prejudices and more within that community where it's residents had previously been (for the most part) “peacefully” coexisting within the boundaries of polite society and law.

Sheltering in Place - Top to bottom: THE THING (1982) / THE MIST (2007) /
TWILIGHT ZONE "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (1960)

     Bringing Rod Serling back into the mix, if there's anything the three aforementioned films all have in common ... . If there's a similar substance running through their thematic central nervous systems, it's a very pronounced  "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" aspect. Their narrative, character and thematic DNA all harken back to the now iconic Serling-scripted 1960 TWILIGHT ZONE episode wherein, after the introduction of an alien "pathogen" element into the OZZIE & HARRIET-like suburban hamlet of Maple Street, trust and law becomes supplanted by fear, a so-called survival of the fittest mindset, paranoia, mistrust and a questioning (for better and for worse) of long-held beliefs. This same narrative-thematic virus (sorry, couldn't help it!) runs through the platelets of Bowman's great big, hairy-chested, dragon-ized, rip roaring pulp yarn cum social allegory. And it's never been as pronounced till now. Till glancing out the window, then viewing it yet again in light of the current "shelter-in-place" COVID-19 crisis where it almost becomes an entirely new film.

     Hmmm? Am I reading more into REIGN OF FIRE than is actually there? To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I guess I have to acknowledge that it's possible. But I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I honestly don’t think I’m giving the film more cred than it deserves. There’s a good way to find out for sure, though. Judge for yourself. During the coming weeks - or however long the “shelter-in-place” edict continues to exists in many areas here and abroad ... . Y'know, during one of those movie binge days, evenings or weekends, rustle up REIGN OF FIRE On Demand or via any one of the many streaming outlets where it’s readily available. I've even seen DVD copies in various department store cheapie bins for three or so bucks. And, hey, over the years it has managed to attain a rather fervent cult following.

     Give it a look-see, or if you've seen it before ... another look-see in light of recent events. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how clever, canny and (especially nowadays) how human-nature-perceptive it genuinely is.

     Stay safe all.

     “Ooh Rah!”



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