When you get right down to it, Stephen Norrington’s debut film, “Death Machine”, is pretty stupid. And I don’t even mean that in a disparaging way, because although it is without a doubt a derivative genre film trying to skate by on a B-Movie level budget, “Death Machine” is nevertheless decent enough for a few good laughs, some okay action scenes, and a heck of a leading lady. That is, if you don’t mind watching a pretty stupid movie while you’re at it.
The sci-fi/action/comedy stars Ely Pouget as Hayden Cale, the new CEO of Chaank, an Evil Corporation that specializes in making and selling weapons for, you know, that thing all Evil Corporations do in these movies — profit. After one of Chaank’s (doesn’t that name just inspire confidence?) super weapons run amok and slaughters a diner full of patrons, the company isn’t looking too good PR-wise. Enter Cale, whose first day on the job includes leaking company secrets to the media, usurping power from the dominant male (re: Eeee-vil) execs, and getting on the bad side of Mad Genius Jack Dante (Brad Dourif), who befitting his disheveled appearance and horny disposition, works out of the corporation’s basement.
As soon as Norrington’s script introduces Cale, you know this is one dumb movie. For one, who exactly hired Cale to be the company’s new CEO, and why aren’t they fired yet? Chaank is a giant, multi-national, multi-billion dollar company, but they can’t hire some guys to dig into the history of their new CEO? This doesn’t make sense at all; that is, if you expected “Death Machine” to even make a modicum of logical sense in the first place. Let’s see: I run a company that makes and sells illegal weapons systems to anyone who wants to buy it, so of course I’m going to hire someone with the social sensibilities of a peacenik. Brilliant! Geez, how does Chaank stay in business with this type of genius decisions?
The whole perplexing idea behind Cale’s hiring aside, the film soon introduces us to three militant peaceniks with the names Sam Raimi, Yutani, and Weyland. And oh yeah, the two male execs that Cale butts heads with are named John Carpenter and Scott Ridley. Ooooh, can’t you just feel the inside jokes? Or is that lazy writing? You decide. Personally, I think naming your characters after famous directors and fake corporations from popular sci-fi movies only serve to draw undue attention to the names of characters, and not to the characters themselves. Then again, considering how generic these guys are, maybe that was the idea.
I don’t mean to make it sound as if “Death Machine” is a total loser. At 90 minutes, it probably spends too much time with Cale as she goes about uncovering her new company’s past and current misdeeds. (If you’re quick enough, you’ll see a cameo appearance by Rachel Weisz (“The Mummy”).) Of course the film’s long build-up is made tenable only because Ely Pouget, despite the odd name, is quite a looker. As the film churns along and Pouget’s Cale is put in dangerous situations, it’s obvious Norrington is going for a Ripley impersonation using Cale (and considering all the nods to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this would seem a given). And yes, Pouget does make a pretty good Ripley/Sarah Connor archetype — except she has supermodel good looks on top of all the Girl Power spunk.
But “Death Machine’s” best choice was probably casting the eccentric Brad Dourif, who gives a winning performance as the Mad Genius who likes torn jeans, porn, and his purposely unkempt appearance. The script’s best moments all have to do with Dourif’s Dante as he seeks, rather unsuccessfully, to get into Cale’s pants. And really, can you blame the guy? Even beaten up, bloodied, and drenched in rain, Ely Pouget cuts a mighty fine figure. It’s also intriguing to wonder why Norrington makes Pouget wear nothing more than some old pajamas for much of the film?
As for Dante’s titular death machine the Warbeast, a sort of skeletal android with sharp knives for teeth and fingers, it was a good idea to hide it for the film’s first two acts. When the Warbeast does eventually show itself in the Third Act, it’s pretty laughable. Which is surprising, since writer/director Norrington is an ex-special effects man. You’d think with his background he could make a more convincing death machine. The Warbeast, like all Movie Monsters, is more fearsome when we see him running around corridors on the hunt. When the Warbeast is roaming (i.e. we see what it sees via a POV shot) he has the speed of Michael Jordan, but when he’s onscreen he moves like Ted Kennedy after a long night at the local pub.
Despite its promising title, “Death Machine” is not all that bloody. There are only four direct kills by the Warbeast’s blades that I counted, and three of them were either off screen or shot in a way that hid the gruesome details. And since the film is clearly going for a goofy, campy take on the films that helmer Norrington clearly loves, you aren’t really surprise that “Death Machine” looks familiar. As a result, I’m officially dismissing “Death Machine” as a horror movie, and calling it a sci-fi retread instead.
Stephen Norrington (director) / Stephen Norrington (screenplay)
CAST: Brad Dourif …. Jack Dante
Ely Pouget …. Hayden Cale
William Hootkins …. John Carpenter
John Sharian …. Sam Raimi
Martin McDougall …. Yutani
Andreas Wisniewski …. Weyland
Richard Brake …. Scott Ridley