The Action/Adventure Section: TRANCERS (1984)

 

The Action/Adventure Section
A regular column that will exclusively highlight and review action movies. The most likely suspects? Action cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. But no era will be spurned. As the column grows, the intent will be to re-capture the whimsy of perusing the aisles of your local video store with only ragingly kick ass cover art to aide you in your quest for sweaty action glory. Here we will celebrate the beefy. This is a safe place where we still believe that one lone hero can save humanity by sheer force of will and generous steroid usage.

Never trust a hypnotist. Even though these days they’re more like lifestyle wizards paid huge amounts of cash to help sort out your first-world problems, like giving up smoking or curtailing those sexual urges you have for fruit. Of course, I’m sure there are both good and bad hypnotists, and as this helpful short film demonstrates, both have their uses.

But, in the interests of bombarding you with vaguely relevant quotes I dug out of Google that make me seem more literate than I actually am, with great power comes great responsibility, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So if you have the ability to mentally manipulate the slack-jawed masses with your mind-lasers, why not turn them into an army of psychotic zombies to do your every bidding and help establish one of those new world orders movie villains keep banging on about?

Although most of these jerks probably wouldn’t have a fucking clue what to do with a new world order if they actually got one.

Evil hypnotist Martin Whistler (the dapper looking chap above) decides to do just that in cheap and cheerful cult favourite Trancers, which I cautiously decided to revisit for this month’s Action/Adventure section. One of those films from my youth I watched and loved over and over again that just seemed to chime with my predilection for gritty, urban neo-noir B-movies that didn’t take themselves too seriously. Fearing the same battering my rose-tinted nostalgia glands got after re-watching Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, I re-approached Trancers with a certain amount of trepidation. Yet unlike Fred Ward’s hilarious yet disturbingly discriminatory kicky-puncho antics, Trancers stands up pretty well, thanks to some deceptively clever writing that revels in its own derivativeness, and the fact it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

But really it’s because of Tim Thomerson, who stars as the brilliantly monikered Jack Deth, your atypical hardboiled cop (or Trooper as they are known 300 years in the future) patrolling a post-apocalyptic, semi-submerged Los Angeles crawling with Trancers – weak-minded humans (affectionately known as ‘squids’) turned ravenous zombies controlled by Michael Stefani’s dastardly hypno-warlock Martin Whistler – who also happened to have murdered Deth’s wife (yes, Mrs. Deth). As per all moody, set-in-their-ways cops harbouring an obsessive grudge against his wife’s murderer, Deth spends his days mourning the loss of his other half, trawling for junk in the underwater ruins of the rechristened Angel City and being a general pain in the hole for his superiors.

“Nope. I’m not getting up until you take back what you said about my name.”
“What? I thought you’d made the name up to look all tough. Like Mike Shatter or John Matrix. How was I to know it was a cherished family name? Jeez, you’re so touchy.”

When he discovers that the previously-thought-dead Whistler is actually alive and time-travelled back to 1985 with the intent of killing the ancestors of the future ruling council (and thereby eradicating his enemies from existence before they’re even born), Deth pursues his nemesis back in time, ropes in a reluctant pre-Oscar winning Helen Hunt, and gets all exasperated at late 20th century LA’s crazy ways (Punk Music? Eating Cows? WTF?).

Lazy comparison-addicts will note that Trancers has more than a touch of the Terminators about it, mixed with a little bit of the Blade Runners and a whole heaped teaspoonful of the Night of the Living Deads. What results is an entertaining genre mashup that compensates for its lo-fi limitations by shoving its tongue so firmly into its own cheek it threatens to come out the other side. Which isn’t surprising considering its director, notorious genre filmmaker and producer Charles Band, has had a hand in 269 low-budget yarns including such classics as Puppet Masters, From Beyond and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. So you know you’re in for a good time when the first two Trancers Deth ‘singes’ (as it is known), are a little old lady and a shopping mall Santa.

Those lying Santa pricks deserve everything they get.

Trancers has fun poking satirical holes in well-worn sci-fi and noirish tropes, with Thomerson displaying almost Jack Burton-esque levels of cynicism and knowing wit as he spouts laconic one-liners all over the place – although he’s nowhere near as inept as Kurt Russell’s lovable lunkhead. Enthusiastically embracing his role by mixing just the right amount of weary toughness and irritability whilst almost constantly winking at the camera, Thomerson seems to have more in common with the legendary Bruce Campbell’s Deadite-bashing Ash – and is almost as likeable. Sparking nicely off a very young-looking but just as tough Helen Hunt as Deth’s love interest/sidekick, who isn’t quite the damsel in distress we were perhaps expecting, Deth traverses sunny LA, singeing Whistler’s Trancers as he tries to find his superior’s last surviving predecessor Hap Ashby (played by the excellently named Biff Manard) – an ex-baseball star turned inebriated hobo.

Who, if you believe IMDb, was actually drunk through most of the shoot. Talk about method acting.

Meanwhile, Michael Stefani proves he’s campier than a row of General Zods and seems to be having great fun as the malevolent Whistler, even if he isn’t given that much to do but stare into his victim’s eyes with his piercing glare and bid his enemies ‘adieu’ after threatening their very existence.

Trancers’ time-travel methodology, whereby protagonists zip back to the past and inhabit the bodies of their ancestors, allows writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (who would go on to write The Rocketeer) to play around with moments of wry comedy (Deth’s gruff police chief McNulty is forced to jump into the body of the only ancestor he could find – a 12 year old girl; Deth’s descendent of choice is a sleazy journalist) and some superficial social commentary – Whistler inhabits the body of a renowned police detective, controlling his army of LAPD zombies in pursuit of Deth and world domination. Predictably, cops and authority figures don’t come out of Trancers looking particularly good – whether it’s Art LeFleur’s sick-of-Deth’s-screwball-antics Police Chief stereotype McNulty; the stuffy, intractable future council leaders (apparently the legendary but unavailable Bette Davis was considered for the role of Chairman Ashe, which eventually went to Anne Seymour), or the relentless, easily brainwashed police slave-force trying to hunt down and kill our hapless heroes.

Some things never change.

Corresponding to the law of flogging a dying horse, Trancers spawned five and a half sequels. The half being the 24 minute short City of Lost Angeles (part of the aborted Pulse Pounders anthology) that you can get on the recently released Blu-Ray. The rest of the Trancers saga sees Deth encounter marital strife, evil cults, parallel worlds and sword-and-sorcery. By the time Trancers 6 got released, even Tim Thomerson had had enough, with the fifth, and to this day, final sequel featuring a Tim Thomerson-less Jack Deth time-jumping into the body of his own daughter – presumably with hilarious results.

But regardless of Charles Band’s shameless Trancer-milking, the original is still a fun homage/rip-off of the bigger and more successful genre flicks he must have been enjoying at his local flea pit whilst thinking, “I could do that, only cheaper and with Tim Thomerson”. Employing a whole IMDb page of genre-filmmaking experience, Band keeps a tight rein on the ridiculous proceedings (as well as the running time) and delivers an economic and efficient tale full of humour, action and cheesy synth scores that totally embraces its own absurdity.

Like the DVD cover, which bears more resemblance to Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy than anything Trancers-related.

Where a cop can travel back in time, punch a gaggle of punks in the face, save the girl who doesn’t need saving, and watch helplessly as (SPOILER ALERT) a drunk tramp defeats the criminal mastermind he’d been pursuing for years by simply knocking him unconscious with a bottle of booze. Which should come across as particularly lame but is actually more in keeping with the playful way Band blends his genres to produce something that, ironically, is at once affectionately nostalgic AND stands the test of time. Employing my limited mind-control abilities through the power of the written word, if all that piques your interest and makes some kind of sense in your addled mind, don’t be a squid, and (re)watch Trancers.

Trancers is available on DVD and Blu-Ray here.

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the author

JC: Family Man. Cinephiliac. Over-opinionated Brit. For more of my nonsensical cinematic ramblings check out http://letterboxd.com/spengler676/ or follow me on Twitter: @jconthagrid