Friday, November 6, 2009

Uncle Sam (USA, 1997)

A forgettable entry of the body-count genre that could have and should have been much more than what it is, considering the men steering the product, the dynamic duo of Larry Cohen – the man behind such fine slime as Black Caesar (1973 / trailer), Hell Up in Harlem (1973 / trailer), It's Alive (1974 / trailer), God Told Me To (1976 / trailer), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982 / trailer), The Stuff (1985 / trailer) and much, much more – and William Lustig – the man behind The Violation of Claudia (1977) (as Billy Bagg), the ultra-misogynistic Maniac (1980 / trailer), Vigilante (1983 / trailer), Maniac Cop (1988 / trailer), Maniac Cop 2 (1990 / trailer) and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993 / trailer). In truth, however, the blame for the film's failure probably lies more with Mr Cohen than Mr Lustig, for it is the tale itself and not the direction that is lacking.
The concept itself – a homicidal Desert Storm trooper killed in action by friendly fire comes back from the dead to kill the unpatriotic (and anyone else he sees fit) during a July 4th celebration in his hometown – is rather nifty and should have been a perfect vehicle for some sublime social criticism, great slaughter and entertaining laughs, but even if the social criticism remains present due to the plot alone, the laughs also remain relatively few and both the narrative and the slaughter veers way too often into the dilettantish (a man who dies from a bee-bee gunshot in the head?). And the entire subplot of a wheelchair-bound boy with a sudden psychic connection to the marauding un-dead Uncle Sam pretty much manages to push the flick off the deep end into the realm of total crap, despite a number of above-average performances by most of the cast, a few inspired deaths and Lustig's smart directorial eye.
Uncle Sam opens in the Persian Gulf (California, actually) where the Sam Harper (David Fralick) sits dead in the burnt remains of his machine, which was shot down by friendly fire. Though dead, he undeads long enough to kill a few military men on-site as he quips "Don't be afraid, it's only friendly fire." Move forward a couple of months to some summertime California town where kids still attend school in July, Sam’s burnt and mummified body is returned to his family and his casket set up for mourning in the living room (they sure must have some damn good air freshener). Sam's nephew Jody Baker (Christopher Ogden), a definite future Republican and NRA member, is about the only person that misses the man and regrets his death, but in no time flat his scorched Uncle Sam (now played by the unrecognisable B-movie king William Smith) crawls forth from his casket to do his American duty of killing everyone who doesn’t meet his approval. The scene in which he gains his Uncle Sam costume, taken from a peeping tom on stilts (the image left shows him in action), is probably the most surreally effective of the film (while the later death of a policeman is the most affective), but little of the film as a whole holds either water or the attention of the viewer. OK, perhaps the concept of 'holding water' is immaterial when talking of a film about a homicidal dead soldier that revives for no reason and then leaves a trial of bodies behind him, but why the psychic kid? And, really, an ornamental canon that still shoots real cannon balls? (That, seemingly, the average vet janitor with a gimp leg [the late, great Isaac Hayes] has a handful of.) And while we all know cars explode at the tap of a bumper, since when do houses explode when hit by a cannon ball?
Any film that makes the viewer glance at the DVD timer to see how much longer it’s going to go on is a failure, and Uncle Sam definitely causes one to do so. OK, there are worse films out there – anything starring Richard Grieco, for example, as Webs (2003) or Raiders of the Damned (2005), to name but two of his films, both amply demonstrate – but one has expectations when the names Larry Cohen and William Lustig head the credits. And with the exception of the fluid camera work – and a cast of interesting genre names (including Bo Hopkins, P.J. Soles and Robert Preston) – Uncle Sam really doesn’t fulfil any of them.

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