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MANDROID (1993)

“You know the Mandroid is my creation. There are modification possibilities that even Zimmer doesn’t know about. The unit can be transformed into a fighting machine of incredible power....”

Director:   Joakim (Jack) Ersgard

Starring:  Brian Cousins, Jane Caldwell, Robert Symonds, Curt Lowens, Michael Dellafemina, Patrick Ersgard, Costel Constantin

Screenplay:  Earl Kenton and Jackson Barr

Synopsis:  A car speeds through the darkened streets of an Eastern European city. In the passenger seat is scientist Benjamin Knight (Michael Dellafemina); at the wheel, Mandroid, an experimental robot being remotely controlled via a virtual reality unit by one of its designers, Dr Karl Zimmer (Robert Symonds). The car approaches dangerously close to the project’s other two team-members, Dr Ivan Drago (Curt Lowens), Mandroid’s co-creator, and Dr Zimmer’s daughter, Zanna (Jane Caldwell), but swerves and turns at the last moment. A delighted Zanna reports to her father that the test is going perfectly. Hardly has she done so, however, than Mandroid’s optical unit malfunctions. Dr Zimmer loses control of the car, which slams into a wall. Zimmer uses Mandroid to free Benjamin from the wreck as Zanna and Drago hurry up. Zanna checks Benjamin’s injuries while, oblivious to all else, Drago checks on Mandroid, finding that the unit isn’t even scratched. Back at the lab, Drago is bitterly critical of Zimmer’s decision to hand their work over to the Americans, but Zimmer insists that their inventions – not just Mandroid, but a powerful new element dubbed “the SuperCon” – are too important to be kept quiet any longer, and must be sent where they can benefit the most people. The following day, scientist Wade Franklin (Brian Cousins), who has been sent by the US government to evaluate these discoveries, is collected at the train station by CIA agent Joe Smith (Patrick Ersgard). At Proheba, a former Communist research precinct, Zimmer shows the visitors samples of the SuperCon, a crystalline substance that is derived from a rare variety of fungus. The fungus is processed by adding a chemical solution in a closed reaction; Zimmer warns that opening the vessel would release a dangerous substance, and adds that for the next step in the process, they need assistance. Benjamin then dons the virtual reality headset, and as Wade and Joe stare in disbelief, Mandroid enters the room. The unit carries the vessel into a sealed cubicle, where the coated fungus is subjected to high-level radiation, which converts it to its crystalline form. That night, the scientists and their visitors celebrate with a dinner in town, where Benjamin becomes despondent over Zanna’s evident attraction to Wade. Drago finds an opportunity to speak secretly to Joe, telling him that Mandroid is much more than just a tool; that with certain modifications, the unit could be transformed into a weapon of incredible power. Drago proposes a deal, but Joe waves him away, asking why his government should buy something it already owns? Joe and Wade drop Zimmer, Benjamin and Zanna at Proheba before returning to town. From the shadows, Drago and an accomplice look on.... At Zimmer’s request, Benjamin goes downstairs to tidy up the lab, storing the samples of the crystalline SuperCon in a freezer unit. As he prepares for bed, Zimmer is attacked from behind. Hearing the struggle, Zanna bursts in. Grabbing a gun from a drawer, she fires, sending her father’s assailant plunging through a window. Meanwhile, Drago attacks the unsuspecting Benjamin, who after repeated blows to the head falls through the glass top of the freezer. Zanna runs to the lab, gun in hand, finding Drago adding the chemical to a vessel of the fungus. Drago draws a gun and fires, and Zanna shoots back. Her bullet penetrates the vessel, which erupts, casting its contents into Drago’s face. He reels, screaming in agony, and vanishes into the night....

Comments:  For a time while watching Mandroid, I envisioned opening this review with a smarty-mouth crack along the lines of Oh-my-God-no-killer-dolls! – only as it turned out, the joke was entirely upon me. Before the film was thirty minutes old, I would have been pleased if a squad of murderous puppets had shown up to enliven the proceedings; and by the time it was over, had those puppets done sick and violent things to most of the main characters, I would have fallen to my knees and wept in gratitude.

Its lack of homicidal manikins notwithstanding, Mandroid is an all too typical Full Moon release. Its human characters are poorly sketched and generally unlikeable, its story elements seem thrown together more or less at random, and although it struggles to make feature length, it feels interminable. Perhaps its most defining characteristic, however, is its almost total lack of any pay-off. I’ve yet to see a Full Moon production that didn’t feel less like a stand-alone film than it did like the pilot episode to a TV series – or like the set-up to a sequel, which, heaven help us, this actually has. Somewhere out there, tossed into a cardboard box along with all the other relics of this phase of Charles Band’s career, there just has to be a set of stationery featuring the company slogan: “Full Moon Entertainment: Jam Yesterday, And Jam Tomorrow, But Never Jam Today.”


Ooh, SCIENCE!!

And here’s another Full Moon trademark! – the fact that the film isn’t actually about what you’d assume it is from, oh, I don’t know, reading the title. The term “Mandroid” emanates, I believe, from the Marvel Comics universe, where it originally described a form of battlesuit designed by Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. It also appeared in an earlier Charles Band film, Eliminators, in that case referring to a cyborg constructed from the body of a dead pilot. Here we have Mandroid in its third incarnation, a robot controlled, at least initially, by a virtual reality headset, a keyboard and a treadmill. (And you can tell that Mandroid is a robot, not a guy in a suit, heavens no, because it cannot move without making a hugely annoying errrhhh-errrhhh-errrhhh noise, kind of like K-9 in its first incarnation.) Poor Mandroid is, alas, a MacGuffin in its own film, but we won’t figure that out for a while yet.

The film opens with a car travelling at dangerous speed through the darkened – and totally deserted – streets of An Unnamed City in An Unnamed Eastern European Country. (Like many of its brethren, Mandroid was shot in Romania. It never names its setting, however, possibly in recognition of the role played by the local authorities in the story who, even when not stepping on heads, are depicted as inept and open to manipulation by local criminals, foreign agents, low-budget film-makers, and the like.) The car is being driven by Mandroid, the unit being under the remote control of its co-creator, Dr Karl Zimmer. Observing nearby are Zimmer’s patently untrustworthy partner, Dr Ivan Drago, and his inexplicably American accented daughter, Zanna. (Yes, that’s right: “Zanna Zimmer”. If you ask me, it’s a form of abuse.) The final member of the crew is American scientist Benjamin Knight (whose presence in this Unnamed Eastern European Country is never explained either), who occupies the passenger seat of the car. Even as the four celebrate their success, Mandroid’s optical unit fails and Zimmer loses control. His reaction to this situation is somewhat curious: rather than, say, hitting the brakes, he keeps his foot down and starts jerking the steering wheel around, so that the car finally slams into a brick wall at about 50 mph; an incident that somehow fails to propel the seatbelt-less Benjamin straight through the windscreen, but rather leaves him with nothing worse than a bump on the head and a bloody nose. Zanna and Drago hurry up, and Drago confirms his eee-vil status by ignoring Benjamin’s injuries, such as they are, and worrying only about Mandroid.


"I have come here to chew gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of ass."

Back at the lab, as Zimmer, Zanna and Benjamin sip champagne, Drago makes a mock toast to “your double-cross”, accusing Zimmer of “giving my life away”. The point of the argument turns out to be, not Mandroid, but something called “the SuperCon”, “perhaps the most powerful element known to man!” We learn that Zimmer intends handing these discoveries to the Americans, for which act Drago calls him a traitor. And you know? – you kind of end up sympathising more with Drago here than the film ever intended. After all, he is equally responsible for both the development of Mandroid and the discovery of the SuperCon; why doesn’t he have any say in their disposal? Of course, the film just takes it for granted that we will take the “right” side here, but the screenplay hardly gives us cause. Zimmer talks a lot about “helping the world”, but the impression left, however inadvertently, is that he’s just as interested in the shiny new lab he’s been promised in the US of A as he is in his discoveries’ potential humanitarian applications. And given that his deal involves handing over to the CIA something that Drago later describes as “a fighting machine of incredible power”--- Well, there does come a moment when naivety crosses the line into the realm of criminal stupidity.

(One of the film’s more blink-worthy moments is surely when Zanna proposes that her father deal with Drago’s objections to their giving their discoveries to the Americans by “handing him over to the security police”. Uh, on what grounds, exactly?)

Anyway--- Exit Drago, muttering, and then it’s time to meet our other two main characters. The first is CIA operative Joe Smith [*cough*]; and if Drago could have come with “Mad Scientist Under Construction” tattooed on his forehead, Joe might as well have “Stinking Rat Bastard” in flashing lights on his. The other new arrival is Dr Wade Franklin, a government-appointed MIT graduate sent in to appraise the worth of Mandroid and the SuperCon. And this is where Mandroid gets truly painful, because Wade is not just our Designated Hero, but our Designated Romantic Lead, too. To say that Wade is both dull and annoying would make him sound way too interesting; this is someone whose most significant personality trait is that he chews gum incessantly. And yet we’re expected not only to take an interest in his actions, but side with him when a triangle instantly materialises between him, Zanna and Benjamin. Sort of. Actually, things don’t so much happen in this section of the film, as we’re just expected to take it for granted that they are happening. The film never bothers to confirm a relationship of any kind between Zanna and Benjamin; but then Wade shows up, and the next thing we know, Benjamin is out in the garden eating worms.


"Uhhuhhuhuh....I am such a chick magnet!"

This is one of those bizarre movie moments where what you see, and what you’re supposed to see, are so diametrically opposed that your brain refuses to process it. Not only is Michael Dellafemina more attractive than Brian Cousins* but, in script terms, Benjamin is simply more likeable than Wade; and the way that the film manages to ignore both these facts is truly awe-inspiring. Indeed, I’m not sure that, in the end, the most entertaining thing about Mandroid isn’t Dellafemina’s self-sacrificial struggle to convince us that Zanna’s preference for Wade is perfectly understandable. I mean, granted, there’s no accounting for taste; but it might have been nice if they’d at least tried to account for it. Amusingly, the film plays the “romantically clueless + socially inept = scientist” card here, blithely ignoring the fact that Wade is a scientist too. To further this end, the film’s costume designer lumbers Benjamin not just with the inevitable glasses and tie, but with a hat that’s about fifty years out of date, even in An Unnamed Eastern European Country; while the screenplay has Benjamin propose a celebratory dinner in town, after the exhibition of Mandroid and the SuperCon, evidently to give Wade an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s much the better dancer (and if you ever need to define the term “Informed Attribute”, this scene will do nicely), and himself a chance to sit around looking hangdog and abandoned. But really, they’re not fooling anyone; and finally the film has to get Benjamin out of the way altogether....

(*Author’s opinion; your mileage may vary.)


"Damn. Why am I such a completely unattractive geek?"

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I’ve told you already that Mandroid is the film’s MacGuffin, but it would have been more correct to say that it is one of two. The other is, of course, “the SuperCon”, aka “The most powerful element known to mankind!”, aka “The last word in organic research!” This multitalented substance starts out as a fungus, one found growing, not just in a nearby mine, but inside the solid rock walls of the mine. No, really. Zimmer places samples of the fungus into a sealable vessel with an injection port in the lid. (As he does so, Mr Genius Franklin remarks, “So, essentially it begins its life as a plant spore?” I hope MIT is proud of him. He must have been in the same graduating class as Dr Allison Saunders.) The fungus is treated with “the SuperCon formula”, a mysterious pink goop of which we will hear nothing more, inside the vessel, which must be sealed in order to contain “a dangerous chemical reaction”. (Hmm.... I could be wrong, but I rather suspect that to be A PIECE OF SUBTLE FORESHADOWING!!!!!) This is where Mandroid makes its appearance, carrying the vessel into a cubicle where the treated fungus is subjected to high-level radiation, and transforms into its crystalline form. “It will cure many of the diseases of mankind,” announces Dr Zimmer, “and it can be used as the most powerful and cleanest fuel ever known!” It’s a jigsaw!  It’s a power drill!  It’s a wood-turning lathe! It’s an asphalt spreader! It’s sixty-seven tools in one! So it is, and that being the case, this is about the last we’ll see of its miraculous attributes, beyond the revelation that – in liquid form – the SuperCon is the fuel that powers Mandroid. Which rather begs the question, if they can’t harvest the fungus to make the SuperCon without Mandroid, and if Mandroid runs on SuperCon in the first place, then....?


Inside a Romanian crack house.

So, we’re about a third of the way through the film now, which in Full Moon terms mean it’s almost time for the actual story to start. Almost. First we have to travel into town with our merry band, and look on as Zanna dances with Wade, Benjamin sulks, and Drago tries to sell out his partners to Joe. It is at this point that we learn that the Mandroid can be – well, duh – “transformed into a fighting machine of unimaginable power”. Joe, who is drunk but not that drunk, declines to pay for something he already owns, leaving Drago with no alternative but to go on a violent rampage, and for this film, at long last, to liven up a bit. After Wade and Joe have dropped the others off, Drago sends an accomplice into the house to murder Zimmer while he himself heads for the lab. The murder attempt is thwarted by Zanna who, in an unexpected display of competence, shoots her father’s assailant and sends him crashing through a window. Meanwhile, poor old Benjamin has been sent to “tidy up the lab”, so that it is he who suffers repeated blows to the head and also goes crashing through some glass, in this case plunging through the glass lid of the chest freezer in which the SuperCon is stored. Zanna again rushes to the rescue, finding Drago in the process of pink gooping a vessel of fungus. Unmoved by her presence and her gun, Drago proceeds to utter a line that had me cheering in sympathy:

“Zanna, you were such a bore when you were little....and you haven’t changed at all.”

Zanna doesn’t appreciate this crack nearly as much as I did, however, and she and Drago exchange shots. His misses; hers takes out the vessel. Its contents catch Drago full in the face, which starts to melt away, and Drago goes screaming into the night.

And at this point, Mandroid pretty much stops pretending that it is about Mandroid, or the SuperCon, or its romantic triangle, and instead follows Drago’s journey as – ahem – he crosses the line from everyday villainy to cartoonish super-villainy. Or anyway, that’s what they were trying for, I think, and they certainly got the “cartoonish” part right. The journey is facilitated when Drago enters an apparently deserted building and terrorises its occupant, a homeless mute guy with a stockpile of weapons (!?), who makes the transition from petrified victim to devoted henchperson in about the time it took you to read this sentence. The henchperson’s first task is to help kidnap a surgeon, who is forced to operate upon Drago, cutting away the dead, gnarled flesh of his face to reveal....the dead, gnarled flesh underneath.


Before. During. After.

Okay, I’ve got no idea what they were doing here, so let’s return to our so-called heroes, where we find that “cartoonish” is also the order of the day. The long-suffering Benjamin, you will recall, was knocked unconscious and fell into a freezer. He wasn’t electrocuted. He wasn’t even frozen. Instead, presumably through contact with the SuperCon (which is supposed to be stable and inert in its crystalline form), he....turns invisible....

Okay, you got me again. I’ve got no idea what’s going on here, either – except that this whole film seems to have settled into an extended game of “My Plot Thread Is Dumber Than Your Plot Thread”.

While Benjamin is upstairs realising his predicament, the others go off to, um, mine some fungus, with Wade left behind in the lab to control Mandroid. (Hey, Ben! You’re not necessary at all!) While the others are still out, Drago comes a-calling, and after taking Wade out with a gas bomb – you could have just killed him, you know, Ivan – Drago dons the control unit and has Mandroid cause the van that Zanna is driving to crash. None of the others are seriously hurt (Mandroid is to car crashes as Van Helsing is to falls from high places), but Mandroid takes a powder. The others are found and escorted back home by one of the most spineless secret policemen you ever will see, and discover Wade unconscious and Benjamin fading away. The latter is taken to hospital (?) by Zimmer, while Zanna and Joe count their losses (i.e. everything). Zanna then reveals that her father has “a special set of SuperCon specs”, which can “take the crystals to their ultimate level of power”. And if you think we’ve just stumbled over our third MacGuffin, give yourself a gold star.


"I dunno. I'm just not feeling myself today."

Meanwhile, back in the realm of cartoonish super-villainy, Mute Henchperson is fashioning a metal mask that makes Drago look like a Dr Doom groupie. Drago himself is busy turning crystalline SuperCon into SuperCon liquid fuel, which somehow gives him the ability to “control Mandroid by thought alone!” (To Mandroid’s credit, you do get something in this scene you won’t find in too many movies: someone ordering their Mute Henchperson to shut up.) And soon Drago comes a-calling again – or rather, Mandroid does – and Joe is kidnapped. Drago proposes the obvious exchange, Joe for the “special specs” – which Drago isn’t supposed to know about – mwoo-ha-ha! And yes, here it is finally revealed that Joe is a Stinking Rat Bastard. Surprise. Zimmer retrieves the specs, which are on microfilm (?), sealed inside a hollow metal ball (??), and buried in a mine (???). The exchange is organised for “the old paper mill”, where Zimmer insists upon making the exchange himself, after which he will “destroy all traces of the SuperCon – then nobody can have it!” Well, so much for curing many of the diseases of mankind, or creating the cleanest and most powerful fuel ever known. But not to despair, because the exchange goes wrong and Zimmer ends up dead. Good! says I; I’m sick of films throwing out the baby along with the bath water.

Drago has previously told us that with the new control helmet, he can operate Mandroid from anywhere in a fifty mile radius – so naturally he’s as close to the exchange as possible. Zimmer & Co., conversely, have about twenty secret policemen hidden around the place. And so Mandroid pads out its running-time with an extended machine-gun battle. I’ve seen reviews that feel that this action sequence somewhat redeems this film, but I feel just the opposite. Not only is it full of repetitive scenes of secret policemen walking around with their machine-guns pointing to the ground while Mandroid blasts away at them, but it culminates in one of the top five stupidest Hero’s Death Battle Exemptions I have ever suffered through.

First, though, Captain Spineless of the Security Force manages to take out Mandroid’s new optical unit; while Joe and Mute Henchman, for whom it was loathing at first sight, take out each other. Which leaves just Wade, right? Wade the scientist. Wade the not-in-the-least-trained-to-use-a-gun. Welcome to the world of Full Moon Entertainment, where an MIT graduate can pick up a handgun and succeed where the entire secret police force of An Unnamed Eastern European Country will fail. (Zanna, who has already demonstrated her competence with firearms, is of course nowhere to be seen.) Malfunctioning Mandroid does nearly strangle Wade, but Wade jams a metal pipe into the face unit of this “powerful, indestructible” creation, and that’s pretty much that. So that just leaves Wade and Drago.

And with Wade sitting exhausted and unarmed, what does Drago do? He shoots him – in the thigh. And then he shoots him again – in the shoulder. Okay, he wants to torture Wade a bit before he kills him; I can dig it! But then it comes, one of the most masterly evasions of an apparently unavoidable fate ever committed to film.

As Drago moves in for the kill, Wade cries, “Wait!”

And Drago does.

“Wait?” he says obligingly. “Yes?”

And Wade reaches behind himself, gets hold of a grenade, pulls the pin, and throws it.

And Drago simply stands there while the grenade goes off and the ceiling caves in, burying him under about a ton of concrete. Which, I have to say, is exactly what he bloody well deserves! Moron.

When the smoke clears, Zanna is at the hospital visiting the now entirely invisible Benjamin. “We have the SuperCon,” she tells him – you know, that stuff that Zimmer wanted to destroy? – “and maybe we’ll find a cure.” And then she goes back to the lab to have almost the same conversation with Wade, who is – in a wheelchair?

Here’s the thing, though: Wade was shot in the shoulder and in the thigh. He was moving around – and chucking grenades – while he was lying on the ground. So why is he in a wheelchair now? It couldn’t be to stop disgruntled viewers muttering, “Hey, isn’t it Benjamin we should all be feeling sorry for?”, could it? I mean, jeez, the poor guy gets dumped, he gets knocked out twice, he gets pushed into a freezer, he gets turned invisible....and this damn film still won’t cut him a little slack! I can only hope that Mandroid’s sequel, entitled Invisible: The Chronicles Of Benjamin Knight, goes some way towards making the poor sucker a few amends.

BUT WAIT!!

 THIS FILM CAN’T END YET!!!

 WE HAVEN”T SEEN ANY TITS!!!!

Mandroid doesn’t finish with the scene in the lab. Rather, it closes with a brief sequence that redefines the term gratuitous kicker ending. We find ourselves in a brothel, with a not particularly impressive specimen of her profession baring her breasts at an as-yet unseen client, only to shriek in horror as she finally gets a look at, yup, his dead, gnarled flesh. She goes on screaming as Drago says, “What’s wrong? Come! Kiss me! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha....

You know, I can’t decide what’s scarier: the thought that the people who made this film actually believed that it would be better, or at least more popular, if they included a brief shot of a rather mediocre pair of breasts....or the thought that they might have been right.


"So....wanna see my R-ratings?"

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