Written by: Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski
Directed by: Steven Kostanski
Starring: Matthew Kennedy, Adam Brooks, and Meredith Sweeney
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Revenge is back.
Irony and insincerity have become so pervasive lately that I’m starting to think that maybe Grindhouse flopping at the box office was for the best. While I’ll never actively wish for anything to fail (much less something as ambitious and crazy as that effort), I can’t imagine what it would have looked like if Hollywood had taken its success as a license to churn out a bunch of empty, fetishistic “bad” movies that would miss the point entirely. Instead, it’s best left to the domain of the filmmakers that gritted out the exploitation circuit in the first place: the low-budget, scrappy auteurs that aimed to entertain despite their obvious limitations. Canadian outfit Astron-6 is a natural successor to this mantle, and, while I was a bit dubious of Father’s Day, Manborg leaves no doubt: these guys have the right mix of reverence and chops to make earnest B-movie schlock.
In a vaguely dystopian future, a young soldier (Matthew Kennedy) is on the front lines against mankind’s ultimate enemy: the forces of hell itself, which have been unleashed by the dastardly Count Draculon (Adam Brooks). During a particularly precarious battle, he’s shredded by enemy bullets and left for dead. Somehow, he awakens years later to make a horrific discovery: not only did Hell itself conquer (and subsequently swallow) the earth, but he’s also been transformed into a cyborg monstrosity by Draculon’s forces. He quickly allies with some fellow prisoners to form a band of freedom fighters in an attempt to fulfill his destiny and reclaim the world for humanity.
What follows is a predictably cheeky affair that’s lined with all the bad movie hallmarks: exaggerated dub jobs, threadbare effects work, stilted acting turns, cornball dialogue, gratuitous violence—if you’ve seen it in a Troma movie, chances are, Astron-6 faithfully duplicates it here with a budget that’s smaller than anything Lloyd Kaufman has ever had at his disposal (the reported $1,000 price tag is astonishing if true). This bunch craftily employs that thriftiness to actually create a distinct aesthetic with it; whereas a lot of throwback “grindhouse” efforts scratch up their prints (or digital files, I guess) in order to affirm their cheapness, Manborg wallows instead in its low budget effects. Most of the film has been shot against a green screen, and it intentionally shows. It’s not just an empty effect to call attention to its “badness,” either, since it results in a hyper-real, comic book aesthetic that’s more distinctive than many Hollywood blockbusters that can boast many more digits on their budgets.
Astron-6 also compensate with a sheer sense of recklessness; like Father’s Day, Manborg diverts from set-piece to set-piece. Manborg and his ragtag crew initially compete in a Thunderdome-esque arena against a bunch of Draculon’s mutant minions before eventually breaking free and embarking on other, equally splattery episodes. Despite its various tangents and its general sense of hyperactivity, Manborg feels a bit more focused than Father’s Day, perhaps because it doesn’t wear out its welcome with a 72 minute runtime. It moves rather breathlessly at times and expects you to keep up with its insanity (and, yes, inanity); along the way, it throws in everything—including the kitchen sink, which it aims right at your face.
With so much wall-flinging, it doesn’t all stick, but it’s hard to deny the hand-crafted charm of it all; for the uninitiated, Astron-6 is a collection of six individuals who did nearly all of the work here, and the film is a triumph of scrappiness. All of the effects—from the stop-motion animation to the FPS-styled POV shots—are meticulously done to create a fully-realized world that’s full of incredible creature designs and make-up. For all of its obvious artifice, Manborg never feels false—it drops you into this late-80s/early 90s VHS-hazed vision of a dystopian future and never relents. The characters that inhabit it are a worthwhile bunch, too; Manborg is an obvious Robocop riff with a highly affected, booming voice that accentuates his meat-headed qualities. Surrounding him is a karate master (who appropriately gets the most egregious dub job), an Australian punk and his knife-wielding sister, and even a diminutive hobo (in the Canadian tradition of littlest hobos, I guess). Draculon is a grandiose, cackling villain whose goofball assistant has developed a crush on Manborg’s female companion (“You may be Prisoner #7, but you’re Prisoner #1 in my heart,” he says).
As these knowing, self-aware efforts pile up, it’s become obvious that there’s a right and wrong way to make a “bad” movie , and Astron-6 have figured out the former. For one thing, Manborg arguably isn’t that bad at all considering the observable craftsmanship on display: not only are the effects top notch and well-utilized within the production’s constraints, but director Steven Kostanski displays a better grasp on action mechanics (read: you can see everything that’s going on) than many “professional” directors working today. Even if the film weren’t generally competent, it would still succeed as a doting tribute to the films that inspired it because Astron-6 isn’t operating on a level above the material. They’re down there basking in it as true adherents of junk cinema, and Manborg doesn’t thrive on snark, irony, or even parody—it’s not mocking those old dustbin treasures as much as it’s simply updating them and inviting you to share in the joy of uncovering a flawed but hugely entertaining gem.
Manborg himself obviously stands as a symbol for the film as a whole: just as he’s scraped together from spare parts, so too is the film cobbled together into a cinematic scrapheap. These six fanatics have practically compounded all of their video store and cable TV memories and welded them together with duct tape and crazy glue. If you watch Community (and if you don’t, you are living in the darkest timeline), imagine Kickpuncher stretched out to (almost) feature length, and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. After premiering at Fantastic Fest nearly two years ago, Manborg is finally coming to DVD courtesy of Dark Sky, who has lavished the film with a fine special edition. The presentation is about as good as you can expect given the source material (the transfer is quite vibrant, though), but the disc has a full complement of features that include deleted & alternate scenes, a blooper reel, a behind-the-scenes bit, stop-motion and VFX montages, a short film, interviews, a Q&A session from the film’s premiere, and a commentary with Steven Kostanski, Jeremy Gillespie, and Peter Kuplowsky. Maybe I've pontificated a bit too much about a movie called Manborg, so let me close with the assurance that it's just as ridiculous as it sounds--but don't expect to laugh at it as much as you laugh along with it. Buy it!
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