Robot Jox [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (7th August 2015).
The Film

After directing one of the all-time great horror films with “Re-Animator” (1985), director Stuart Gordon then signed a three-picture deal with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. Each of the features was to be shot just outside Rome at famed producer Dino De Laurentiis’ “Dinocitta” studios. Each of the features was also distinct from the others, with Gordon producing three cult classics in a short span of time. “Dolls” (1987), about diminutive killer dolls, was the first to be shot and the second to be released due to a prolonged post-production period. “From Beyond” (1986), another ode to H.P. Lovecraft, was the first out of the gate and still retains a strong following for being so otherworldly and gory gross. Those films were relatively cheap to produce, but Gordon’s planned third film – “Robot Jox” (1989) – was a costly expenditure that labored in limbo (due to Empire’s bankruptcy) for a few years before finally getting a release in 1990. Of the three films Gordon made in Italy, “Robot Jox” has been the most overlooked.

Personally, this is one of those childhood favorites I was cautiously optimistic to revisit. On the one hand, this was a movie I rented on VHS more than a few times and it recalled some fond memories of Friday night viewings. On the other hand, it was very possible this wouldn’t hold up at all because, boy oh boy, does it ride that fine line of camp and crap.

Set in an age fifty years past a nuclear war that almost ended humanity, war has been outlawed. The only accepted means of combat is head-to-head, with a fighter from each faction entering a giant robot controlled by their movements. They are known as “robot jox”. Think “Pacific Rim” (2013) but less techy. When the Russian Confederation’s top fighter, Alexander (Paul Koslo), manages to defeat one of Market’s (i.e. the West) best robots, it becomes clear that someone is leaking information to the opposition. This is of great concern to Achilles (Gary Graham), Market’s top fighter and the next scheduled opponent for Alexander. Robot jox need to win ten bouts in order to retire, something Achilles’ friend, and Market strategist, Tex (Michael Alldredge) achieved during his time as a fighter.

During Achilles’ clash with Alexander, a power move gone awry leaves hundreds of spectators dead (which shouldn’t have surprised anyone given how close they were allowed to sit) and both robots damaged enough to call it a draw. A rematch is scheduled, but Achilles refuses on the grounds that he just completed his last match - win, lose or draw. In his place Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), a genetically created “test tube baby” (made specifically for fighting), agrees to fight Alexander. But Achilles’ allows his macho instincts to take over, leading to a final match with his nemesis Alexander to prove once and for all who is the ultimate robot jox (jock?).

There was a clash of ideas regarding this film’s tone. Screenwriter Joe Halderman wanted something serious, while Gordon, who delivered the story idea, wanted a children’s film that could also be enjoyed by adults. Judging by the final cut, it’s pretty clear Gordon won out, and “Robot Jox” is all the better for it. This movie is FUN. Period. It isn’t designed to be high-brow entertainment, or complex in any sense. This is a movie where men man massive machines and pummel each other into the ground. Who wouldn’t want to see world conflict solved in such a manner?

Gordon has said he was inspired by – of all things – the Japanese Transformers toy line. Nobody had really done a live-action giant robot movie, making his original story a true novelty. But it was going to take skilled FX artists to make it all look believable – and it does. Even all these years later, the combination of full-scale robot parts and stop-motion animation looks astonishingly deft. CGI wasn’t an option at the time; this film had to reply solely on old-school techniques. The robots look imposing and are consistently given real-world scale to show off their bulk. The cuts between tangible parts (like a giant robotic foot) and stop-motion are seamless, allowing the fights to carry maximum impact without taking viewers out of the action by revealing the magic behind the curtain.

The robots are the real stars here, but we’ve also got some humans to carry the picture, too. Gary Graham isn’t going to win any awards for his portrayal of conflicted hero Achilles, though he’s just good enough to get a pass. Ubiquitous character actor Paul Koslo chews scenery and steals the film as Alexander, the Russian champion who, frankly, has more of a will to win than anyone else. Gordon fans will also be able to spot many of the director’s regulars – Jeffrey Combs, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Ian Patrick Williams.

Gordon has said the sequence of the robots flying into space was meant to showoff abilities that would have been used in a sequel, where the robot jox would be fighting against alien invaders. Fun fan theory game: pretend this is a prequel to “Pacific Rim”. “Robot Jox” promises nothing more than large-scale battles between hulking steel behemoths, and that is more than satisfactorily delivered.

Note: the MGM DVD accidentally presented the "PG-13" cut of the film, which features a few additional bloody shots. While there’s no mention on the packaging of what cut is included here, based on what the additional shots contain I can safely say this is that same "PG-13" version.

Video

Scream Factory presents “Robot Jox” on Blu-ray, with a sharp 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture. The image has nice depth to it, featuring a fine layer of film grain, strong color saturation and what appears to be only minor DNR use. Since the effects shots jump around from optical to stop-motion to in-camera, quality, too, can vary from shot to shot. Thankfully, the image remains stable throughout these transitions. One downside to hi-def is that wires are a little more visible. One oddity: during the final third of the film there are a number of shots where little dots are visible on the screen, likely an issue with the print used.

Audio

“Robot Jox” was mixed in Ultra Stereo, and the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track provided here likely replicates the theatrical experience. Levels are on point, with nice separation of effects among the front speaker assembly. The only complaint would be a lack of low-end sound, which would have aided in giving the battles some additional weight. Subtitles are available in English.

Extras

Although this isn’t a collector’s edition, Scream Factory has still stuffed this release with two audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes and more.

Director Stuart Gordon delivers the first audio commentary, moderated by Michael Felsher. If you’ve listened to Gordon’s tracks for “Dolls” and “From Beyond”, then this is a must simply because it fills in additional information about making movies during this time period. Gordon covers expected topics here, such as the project’s beginnings, sequel ideas, story changes and so forth.

Next up, a crew-heavy audio commentary featuring associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport and stop-motion animator Paul Jessel. This is understandably the more technical track, with all of these artists discussing what it took to pull of the film’s battles.

“Looking Back with Paul Koslo” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 10 minutes and 14 seconds. The veteran character actor discusses his time on the set of “Robot Jox”, with discussion covering shooting in the Mojave Desert in heavy battle suits, as well as his robot’s “chainsaw dick”.

A handful of archival interviews (SD) are also included:

- “Director Stuart Gordon” runs for 7 minutes and 27 seconds.
- “Pyrotechnic Supervisor Joe Viskocil” runs for 7 minutes and 57 seconds.
- “Associate Effects Director Paul Gentry” runs for 7 minutes and 14 seconds.
- “Stop-Motion Animator Paul Jessel” runs for 7 minutes and 48 seconds.
- “Animation & Visual Effects Chris Endicott & Mark McGee” runs for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

A reel of camcorder-shot “behind-the-scenes footage” featurette runs for 14 minutes and 16 seconds, mostly showing off the special effects work.

A theatrical trailer (SD) runs for 1 minute and 25 seconds, while a TV spot (SD) runs for 31 seconds.

There are also two still galleries:

- “On Location” runs for 7 minutes.
- “Illustrations” runs for 3 minutes and 40 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case. The cover art is reversible.

Overall

This movie was fun when I was 12-years old and I’m pleased to report it is just as much fun in my thirties. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release delivers in terms of a/v presentation, as well as extra material.

The Film: B- Video: B Audio: B- Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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