Sunday, December 16, 2012

Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

"Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! Saviour of the universe! Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! He'll save everyone us!" When people come up to me on the street–you know, to tell me my shoes are untied–they invariably ask me what my opinion is regarding actor Sam J. Jones (people, as you might expect, are dying to know what I think about stuff). And if they were to ask me before, oh, let's say, last Wednesday, I would always start off by saying, in the most sheepish manner possible: Oh, you mean they guy from My Chauffeur? And then, after waiting for their playful laughter to subside, I would launch into this long, meandering, some might say, deranged soliloquy, about the statuesque thespian. After I finished, the person who had just endured my long-winded speech would always ask why I failed to mention Flash Gordon, the live action sci-fi adventure flick from 1980 that he's purportedly best known for. Trying my best not to appear infuriated by their insolence, I would simply say, "Flash Gordon?!? I don't watch crap like that," and politely excuse myself. Fast forward, or, I guess I should say, flash forward, you know, because the film is called...never mind. Jump ahead to this past week, where cursing the arrogant, non-Flash Gordon-watching jackass who used to live inside my nimbus has been the main order of business. You can thank the live action version of Masters of the Universe for loosing up my butt-hole's tolerance for films that mix  swashbuckling with laser-gun shootouts, as the Mike Hodges-directed film entered my organic structure with a buttery smoothness (my rectum did not bleed, I repeat, my rectum did not bleed). But as a fan of films such as Barbarella and Starcrash, I must say, I feel a deep sense of shame for ignoring the garish allure of Flash Gordon, one of the greatest films to ever open with the words "hot hail" flashing on the screen for inordinate amount of time (if you remember correctly, the classic film Grand Illusion starts off with the words "hot hail" as well).
The fact that it took me over thirty years for my eyeballs to make a date with Flash Gordon is, to be perfectly honest, extremely embarrassing. Aren't you forgetting something? Oh, yeah. I want to be whipped by Mariangela Melato, while, of course, she's wearing her skintight Kala uniform. No, not that. The other thing. Right, the other thing. I would like to use this opportunity to apologize to all the people I flippantly dismissed whenever they brought up Flash Gordon after I had completed my Sam J. Jones-related ramble/tirade. In my defense, he is amazing in My Chauffeur. I mean, his chemistry with Deborah Foreman is undeniable. However, that's no excuse for my behaviour. I am, for intents and purposes, truly sorry.
"Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! Saviour of the universe! Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! He'll save everyone us!" Now that's how you start a fucking movie. What are you talking about? I'm talking about the music of Queen. "Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh!" Granted, I don't know much about Queen. Other than seeing their Metropolis-inspired video for "Radio Ga-Ga" and the video that featured Freddie Mercury vacuuming in a leather mini-skirt ("I Want to Break Free") as a smallish child, and, of course, the famous scene from Wayne's World, my Queen experience is pretty limited. Grabbing you by the haunches almost immediately, the second Freddie yells "Flash!" and that first lightning bolt flashes across the screen, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
Like I've said many times before, it doesn't usually take long for me to size up a film's awesomeness. But in the case of Flash Gordon, it was almost instantaneous. Starting off with an unseen Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) telling his loyal henchman Klytus (Peter Wyngrade), who is also unseen, that he's bored, you know some evil shit is about to go down.  Spotting a planet on his view screen, Ming asks Klytus what the name of that peaceful looking bluish rock is. Pronouncing "Earth" in the most derisive manner possible, Ming decides to have fun with this "Earth." And by "fun," I mean cause earthquakes, hurricanes, and, you guessed it, make hot hail fall from the sky.  
With a theme song that kicks an egregious amount of ass, it only makes sense that the hero at its centre kick just as much, ass, that is. You can't tell right away, but a blonde human male named Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), quarterback for the New York Jets, will have an army of Hawkmen spelling his name in the sky above Mongo by the time this epic adventure is over.
Waiting on the runway for his private jet to pick him up, Flash spots Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), a brunette travel agent, getting out of a van. Judging by the way their eyes lock, it's obvious that Flash and Dale are attracted to one another. And why wouldn't they be? He's tall, handsome, and is wearing a white t-shirt with his name on it (his first name is emblazoned across his chest in flamboyant red letting). And she, well, she's rocking a red and white ensemble like nobody's business; a pair of cheeky white pumps, a modest red dress, and a white blazer with a red handkerchief in the pocket. In other words, Flash likey.
As they're flying through the air together, their plane hits a little turbulence (of course, this doesn't stop Flash from hitting on Dale, whose lipstick, by the way, totally matches her dress). Suddenly, the plane begins to veer out of control. Oh my, the pilots are gone! What do you do you mean the pilots are gone? Just that, they're gone. It's almost as if they were sucked through the windshield by an unknown entity. Thankfully, Flash, who has recently started taking flying lessons, grabs the wheel and attempts to land the plane safely. It's still early on, but I like the way this Flash fella never seems to shirk from a challenge.  
Crashing through the lab of a disgruntled scientist named Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topel), one who used to work for NASA, Flash and Dale find themselves in yet another pickle of a situation. You see, Dr. Zarkov is disgruntled for a reason. He wants to confront the aliens that are responsible for the earthquakes, the hot hail, and the lunar eclipses, and plans to do so with the aid of a rocket that he's built in his lab. Unfortunately, no one believes his theory that a malevolent force from another galaxy is causing the planet so much turmoil. And since his lab partner has flown the coop, Dr. Zarkov wants Flash and Dale to accompany him on his mission (his rocket needs more than one person in order for it to operate in an efficient manner).
Since Flash and Dale, like Dr. Zarkov's lab partner, have no desire to battle imaginary aliens played by Swedish, British, and Italian actors, they resist the deranged scientist. Try as they might, all three, as a result of some mildly contrived circumstances, end up blasting into space. Even though they have, up until now, only exchanged a few lustful looks and engaged in some light to moderate flirting, you can tell Flash has the hots for Dale by the way he tries shield her from harm.
Welcome to Mongo, puny earthlings. If you thought The Apple was too gaudy, the Phantom of the Paradise was too glam, and Xanadu was too...xanadu-ey?!? Your eyes ain't seen nothing yet. As the opening credits were rolling to the sound of Queen, I couldn't help but wonder why the film's costume designer/set decorator, Danilo Donati, was featured so prominently (the font used for his name seemed more robust than the others). Well, after getting a look at the characters that populate Mongo, the planet ruled by Emperor Ming, I'm not surprised his name was so prominently displayed. I would say that a large part of this film's appeal comes from the sets and costumes, as they're wonderfully garish. I mean, never have I seen so much red and gold worn by so many at once.
As Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov enter Ming's chambers (they have been taken prisoner), we get a sense that all is not well in this tawdry universe. It would seem that the Tree People, ruled by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the Hawk People, headed by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), are at odds with one another. As the two princes are about to have at it, Klytus, Ming's gold-faced henchman, reminds them that no one shall die unless Emperor Ming wills it. And judging by his stoney demeanour, Ming ain't willing shit. The always thinking Dr. Zarkov sees the conflict between the Tree People and the Hawk People as an opportunity. Meaning, if he can convince them to put aside their differences and focus their energy on defeating Ming, who they secretly dislike, maybe he can save Earth from being destroyed after all. 
Let's be honest, the chances that a disgruntled scientist, a leggy travel agent, and a blonde quarterback will be able to defeat Ming's forces all by themselves is pretty far-fetched.
While we're at it, let's be even more honest. How are they going to save Earth when the disgruntled scientist's mind has been wiped, the leggy travel agent is engaged to marry Ming (he may be evil as all get out, but his taste in concubines is second to none), and Flash is dead. Flash is what?!? Yeah, he's dead. That's what you get when you call Ming a "psycho." But don't worry, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) has got things covered. Who's she, you ask? Oh, she's Ming's daughter. She likes to toy with men. How does she do that exactly. Uh, by looking like Ornella Muti, that's how.
Speaking of Italian women who toy with men with a jaunty elan, even though it takes roughly forty minutes for her to make her first appearance, the moment Mariangela Melato shows up as Commander Kala was totally worth the wait. In charge of Ming's feared secret police, Kala, sheathed in leather from head to toe (with gold flourishes peppered here and there to break up the monotony), is the queen of torture.
If you need to wipe someone's memory, she's your gal. If you need your treacherous, eye makeup-obsessed daughter to be whipped, she's your gal. If you need to...we get the idea, she rules. You got that right. In fact, she rules so hard, I'm having trouble concentrating. I don't know, I keep imagining myself being double-teamed by Kala and Evil-Lyn from Masters of the Universe. What makes Kala, and, I suppose I might as well include Evil-Lyn, so appealing is that they may follow the orders of dictators, yet they display brief moments of  independence. As in, we'll do your bidding, but only on our terms. Oh, and they both manage to be sexy without revealing any skin.
When she first arrived at the airfield at the beginning of the film, I wasn't sure about Melody Anderson as Dale Arden. I mean, if I'm going to believe that Flash Gordon would cast aside a flirtatious Ornella Muti for another woman, that woman is going to have to be pretty spectacular. And during the film's early going, I wasn't getting that vibe from Melody Anderson. All that changed when Dale takes off her shoes (her white pumps have long since been replaced with a pair of strappy gold heels), places them in a safe place, and proceeds to overpower three or four of Ming's creepy guards. When she's done blasting and karate chopping the guards (who let out this horrible shriek when killed), she calmly picks up her shoes and continues on her way.
Being a concubine probably blows, but you gotta love the free shoes. I'm surprised Dale didn't have second thoughts about the whole concubine thing. The prospect of having round the clock makeup service must have been tempting.
In a universe where manliness is measured by inserting your fist in a wet hole, Hawkmen dive with an infectious brand of enthusiasm (when the boisterous Brian Blessed - whose laugh makes me happy- instructs his Hawkmen to dive, I'm sorry, I meant to say, diiiiiiive, I got goosebumps), rings have built-in flamethrowers, no-nonsense earthlings use their knowledge of football to defeat alien henchmen ("Go, Flash, go!), and rocket-cycles are always conveniently nearby to help facilitate escape attempts, Flash Gordon is what cinema should be. Colourful, raucous, goofy, camp-laden fun. "Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! Saviour of the universe! Flash! Ahhh-ahhhhh! He'll save everyone us!"

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  1. Yeeeah, one of my all time favorite sci-fi's. I mean, this movie was purposely campy, purposely cheesy and I love every second of it. It's exciting, full of life, funny, colorful....and sexy even! I totally agree, Mings daughter is a sure fire beauty! That scene where she's hitting on Flash by telepathy is awesome and hilarious.

    Love the old school production values, and Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless is priceless...almost as priceless as Frank Langella as skeletor in Masters of the Universe!

  2. There's some resemblance with some of the costumes to Danilo's next movie, Red Sonja. I thought so anyway.

    It shouldn't surprise you that I have the soundtrack on vinyl. FLASH!!! AH HAAAA!

  3. Yum-yum, if you REALLY WANT TO PARTY, you'll go with the original Flash Gordon serial from 1936. Priscilla Lawson stars as the original Princess Aura and is hot.

    Trust me, the mind numbing will set in around the fourth episode and will stay with you for a long time.

  4. oh, and i've said this before, but i'll say it again:

    "My Open Letter to Max Von Sydow"

    Hi. You are one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. Please don't forget that. If you need some reminders:

    Maybe "serious" critics went, "Flash Gordon? Ew!" But you got to wear a cape and prance about.

    But shit like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"?

    Please stop making shitty films. You are Max Fucking Von Sydow.

    lots of love,


  5. This film is an eyeful of stunning production and set design! Those Italian craftspeople really know how to dress a set! Man... pure unadulterated eye candy a-go-go.

  6. Mike Hodges directed this? We have a Croupier poster in our stairwell, so I see "Directed by Mike Hodges" on a daily basis. Not many people can say that.

    I love Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    Hey, I heard about that syrup thievery in Quebec!

  7. @The Film Connoisseur: Awesome, hilarious, and, if I remember correctly, quite titillating.

    @Thomas Duke - Are you recommending Red Sonja, or are you just showing off your Danilo knowledge? ;)

    I was just holding the soundtrack in my hand the other day. However, it was on one of them compact disc thingies, so you would have probably laughed at me.

    @ido: Mmmm, Priscilla Lawson. Leggy babes from the '30s.

    @J.D. Lafrance: "Pure unadulterated eye candy a-go-go." I like that. Well put.

    @Karim Amir: I didn't know Flash Gordon Mike Hodges was the same Mike Hodges who made Croupier, but I do know about your stairwell poster.

    I'm Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close neutral.

    Didn't Syrup Thievery tour with Sloane back in '96? But seriously, I heard the syrup was worth millions of dollars. The biggest syrup heist in Quebec history is what I'm not being told.

  8. There has been a break in the case:

    i only wish the news in my own country was like this.

  9. 18 million dollars worth of syrup.

  10. Mariangela Melato sadly passed away just a few days ago.
    Great review as always by the way!

  11. Yeah, I heard. Very sad news. :(