Armageddon (1997)

Too convoluted for it's own good, but surprisingly reasonable nonetheless.

Released in 1997, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 26 Mar 2003 by Scott Morris
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No, not the Willis vs. asteroid film. Made one year before the Michael Bay extravaganza, this film has alternative and slightly more appropriate names of Redline and Deadline. Set in a not too far distant future Russia where crime and corruption runs rampant after the fall of the economy, it's essentially a reasonably well done tale of revenge where the sci-fi elements are pretty superfluous, and a little difficult to justify.

When budgets are tight, movies generally have to cut corners in terms of effects, talent and most tellingly location. This can lead to some pretty grim spectacles of bad actors faffing about with painted Supersoakers in disused warehouses masquerading as spaceships against some tinfoil wrapped 'aliens'. A now established way to eke the budgets a little further is film somewhere other than the terribly expensive US territories and go East, young man. The now cuddly, friendly and capitalist regimes in power in the collapsed Soviet regions allow a great opportunity to pay extras very little and have lots of spiffy, architecturally grandiose and above all cheap locations to shoot in. This is the route Armageddon goes down, and it raises it a few notches above the usual sci-fi dross.

Although, it must be said there's actually very little science fiction in here, and for the most part it might have been better to leave it out. John Wade (Rutger Hauer) is an ex-CIA agent now smuggling illegal video games into Russia (here played by Hungary, strangely), the sort that download directly into your head. His crew land and he land his aircraft in what appears to be Gorky Park, given the number of random statues his girlfriend, Katya (Yvonne Scio) has to wander through to meet them. The party is spoiled by an unmanned military drone, which destroys their plane, its pilot and much of their cargo. While Katya and his partner Merrick (Mark Dacascos) try to get their truck moving from it's inconvenient parking place in a ditch of mud, Wade destroys the drone with his handy RPG. He runs over to the truck hoping to make good his escape only to be cold-heartedly shot by Merrick, who also kills Katya to showcase his evilness, and provide some motivation for Wade to seek revenge.

Which would be difficult by conventional methods because Wade is now dead, as the military forces headed by Vanya (Randall William Cook) attest to on their arrival. However Vanya is in need of test subjects for a new surgical procedure involving bio-synthetics that we shouldn't spend to much time on examining lest if fall apart, but the up-shot is that they can bring him back to life, after a few months of work. They do so, although he doesn't seem too grateful, knocking out a nurse by smacking her head off a table and escaping. Perhaps he's been angered by their decision to remove his moustache, although that was one he ought to be thankful for. In situations like this perhaps it's time to turn to God, so Wade visits his local orthodox priest. The priest is also a rather unorthodox arms dealer, and sells Wade a 'special' gun. For 'special' read 'unconvincing oversized shiny silver', although it does have the special property of having seemingly infinite ammo, perhaps due to Future Technology 7.

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Vanya isn't too upset about Wade's escape, as he's been charged by the president to locate and deal with the local organised crime syndicate du jour, The Troika. Merrick had sold out Wade as the price of entry into the syndicate, and we see him earning his keep by taking over a rivals' turf in suitably brutal fashion - cutting off the hapless rivals' fingers, stuffing them in his mouth, forcing the opposing henchmen to surrender then calmly gunning them all down. I like to see a ruthless streak in my movie villains, and Merrick's actions are certainly ruthless. It's a pity that Mark Dacascos can't quite pull of the same levels of intensity in his dialogue, although this may be more a lack of good lines than lack of ability.

Wade finds this out through an old friend, Mishka, but he can't tell him where Merrick is. For this he points him in the direction of the 'House Of Culture', an ironically named brothel, and a familiar looking hooker named Marina (also Yvonne Scio, with a different hairstyle). Here we have a fine example of the 'hooker with a heart of gold' cliche, although it's probably to the films credit that the glaring cliches stand out from the rest of the film rather than the continual stream of cliches prevalent in low budget movie season.

Meanwhile, Mishka informs a disbelieving Merrick that Wade is alive and after him. Dismissing him, he tells Mishka that if Wade is still alive, kill him. And bless his little cotton socks, he tries to, firing wildly as Wade exits the House Of Culture. He misses, but takes out three innocent bystanders before panicking and running off. Wade collects Mishkas' dropped gun and decamps to his hotel, where we see the only other sci-fi gimmick in the movie. It's one of the game-unit things that give you the ability to act out your fantasies vividly, a hi-tech replacement for the dream sequence. It doesn't prove too satisfying for him though. He leaves to track down Mishka, running into Marina again. The pair eventually track down the Troika to a grandiosely staged boxing match in what looks like the internal courtyard of a grand hotel, where after a bit of intrusive snooping Wade is attacked by a squad of topless female kickboxers. Plus ten points for originality, minus several million for completely gratuitous nudity, occurring a few times in the film to it's detriment. Of course, Wade kills them but as the Police and Military are well bribed by the Troika this means than pretty much everyone is against him.

Action Movie Cliche number 4 kicks in now, that of the whirlwind romance of Wade and Marina, as though the proximity to bullets catalyses falling in love. It's interrupted by one if the nicer aspects in the film, an appearance of Moscow's Most Wanted on a TV set showing a wonderfully cheesy reconstruction of Wade's crimes, replete with baby carriage bouncing down steps ala The Untouchables. As this is shown on the huge TV screens dotted around the cityscape in one of the more obvious Blade Runner homage's, the public at large are now against Wade too due to the generous reward offered. As police storm Marina's apartment they have to shoot their way out, using the power of Action Movie Cliche number 7, heroes are stunningly accurate with handgun fire while enemies cannot aim an automatic weapon at five paces. There's a wonderful scene just after this when Wade is eyed suspiciously as he proceeds down the street, before something like twenty seemingly homeless guys pull automatic weapons and start spraying randomly. Wade escapes unscathed, of course.

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After taking vengeance on Mishka, Wade is finally arrested. At this point the expected double-crosses start appearing, and the come thick and fast. By the end of the film you'll wish that there were a flowchart supplied giving a diagram of who's bribing who and how many people know about it. This is probably the single worst aspect of the film, as it's ludicrously overcomplicated for what is essentially a simple tale of vengeance. In the midst of all this chaos and backstabbing, Wade gets to kill Merrick surprisingly early in the final act, leaving about twenty minutes to tie up loose ends and making sure everyone connected even peripherally with the Troika get their just deserts. While it's a brave way to structure the film, it doesn't have quite the same impact as the conventional methods do. After building to a Merrick/Wade showdown for the majority of the film, suddenly switching to a Wade/everyone else theme on a flimsy reason (Merrick was personal, now he wants his money back that Merrick ended up 'investing' with the Troika) while possibly logical is a tad anti-climactical.

It also can't help but throw up more minor twists in the last few scenes, although none of them are earth shattering. But if they don't really change anything, why put them in? It's a problem throughout the film as it tends to twist and turn when it may have been better to plough a straighter furrow.

Still, at least all these contrivances keep you on your toes and as a result it's a fun little movie to watch. While it steals from a great many sources, the most obvious of these being Blade Runner with it's videoscreens and dilapidated almost gothic architecture. Arguably a few of the gunfights start near enough randomly, and it's perhaps a touch cliche heavy. These could be levelled at nearly all action films so it seems unduly harsh to crucify this film for the failings of a genre.

The film manages to create a fairly good atmosphere throughout, conductive to letting it get away with the above things which I'd normally start hating a film for. It's helped in no small part by Hauer, he looks convincing and stylish as the ex-CIA man and can pull off some of the more hackneyed elements of the film without it ever seeming ridiculous, which ensures that this movie never falls down the laughable path many other low budget flicks do. I've few complaints against the supporting cast as well, although there is some evidence of accents bouncing around in places it's not enough to irritate me, which has happened quite a bit over this short season. Solid performances all round in every aspect of the film with the exception of the somewhat Heath Robinson plot mean I can't bring myself to lay into this film with the vitriol generally reserved for these sparsely budgeted affairs.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Tibor Takacs
Cast list:
Rutger Hauer (John Anderson Wade)
Mark Dacascos (Merrick)
Yvonne Scio (Marina K./Katya)
Patrick Dreikauss (Mishka)
Randall William Cook (Vanya the Special Prosecutor)