Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Ken: Jim, you manage to consistently unearth movies that are not only unbelievably bad and unforgivably regressive, but unaccountably star-studded. I watched Laser Mission with my girlfriend’s 14-year-old boy and he was horrified and awestruck that such a thing could exist. But he is of too tender an age to realize the depths of this film’s depravity. Brandon Lee and Ernest Borgnine must have angered some ancient god to be made to suffer through this thing. Where on Earth did you find this movie?
Jim: You know, Ken, I think this might be one of those occasions where even I’m not sure how I first became aware of this film. Maybe it was while reading through the filmography of Brandon Lee, years ago. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t been browsing through the Borgnine retrospective, so the former seems more likely. Regardless, this is one of those movies I’ve known of for years, but never got around to watching until now. For which I can only say, “I’m sorry.” What I thought would probably be a light and breezy ’80s action farce is actually a painfully incompetent slog through the lowest levels of action movie purgatory.
Ken: I’m in awe of this garbage. Ernest Borgnine appeared in some of the most essential films of the 20th century. Brandon Lee was headlining hot action movies until his untimely death. How, how, how did they end up in something like Laser Mission? Do we have any context for this stinker? I’ve never even heard of it.
Jim: I honestly have no idea, but it looks like something a group of ragtag students threw together in their backyard, provided that their backyard opened up into a huge desert. It was made in 1989, and clearly not shot on film—from the first moment, you know you’re in trouble, because the video quality is abysmal. Everything is tinted a jaundiced yellow tone, and every image is soft, lacking in clarity or detail. The whole thing looks like a home movie, as cheap video from this period tends to do.
Ken: The level of incompetence and technical ineptitude is unbelievable, but I think you’ll agree one major part of this film’s badness is how truly, rock-crushingly dumb the plot and the dialogue are. I think that you need to describe the opening to our loyal readers. Let us begin this LASER MISSION.
Jim: Yes, someone does indeed say the title of the film out loud within the first 10 minutes, if anyone reading this was wondering.
Laser Mission begins with some kind of charity auction being held in a room that can fit about 30 people, wherein rich people in hilariously cheap tuxedos are whistling and catcalling to show their appreciation for the discovery of the world biggest and most beautiful diamond, which looks more or less like the knob on the door of your grandmother’s bedroom. However, before the bidding can start, a bottle of champagne explodes into a gas grenade and the diamond is stolen. Stolen for use with lasers. This is after an opening credits sequence that uses a sexy theme song called “Mercenary Man,” which you will be hearing, uh … a few more times, throughout the picture.
Ken: And let’s not forget that the opening credits are happening over footage of shotgun shells and bullets being loaded into a bunch of guns. Exactly the sort of munitions you want for a LASER MISSION!
Jim: My notes say “gunshots in the first second.” What did you think of that persistent theme song? You have a chance to get QUITE familiar with it throughout.
Ken: I think it is what somebody doing a parody of late ’70s action movies would do, but minus any of the self-awareness. It belongs as the backtrack to Sponge Bob lip-synching something. It will be my walk-on music when I finally hit it big and make it to the stage on Monday Night RAW.
Jim: I ended up looking up the provenance of said song, and it turns out that all the music for Laser Mission came courtesy of Dire Straits member David Knopfler. But presumably they only paid him for like three tracks, because they use them all over and over again. “Mercenary Man” shows up five times. Yes, I was counting.
Ken: I’m glad you were, because I lost count.
We are shortly after introduced to Brandon Lee’s character, whose name is Michael Gold. He disembarks from a plane and goes through customs. I don’t know where he is. It is implied he is maybe in Cuba or some banana republic, but the gentleman stamping his passport looks like and speaks with a thick African accent. There is a man in a Soviet uniform standing behind him, but who I swear is speaking German. It dawned on me slowly that this is a film where there are two geographical locations: AMERICA, and NOT AMERICA.
Jim: You have incredibly summed up the disorienting locational nightmare that is Laser Mission. It is incredibly confusing to even attempt to suss out where the characters are at any given time, or what ethnic backgrounds any of the actors are meant to be portraying. I gave up almost immediately. Characters like chief antagonist Col. Kalashnikov are obviously supposed to be Russian, given their names, but their accents never even approach cartoon Russian, let alone actual Russian. Also: I recognized that actor (Graham Clarke) as the second in command from Space Mutiny, so yeah, we’re clearly in good hands here.
Ken: What an area to be type-cast in! Lee, on the other hand, knows he’s meant for better things, and it shows in his snide line-readings. I have no idea how he came to be in this thing, but it really looks to me like he doesn’t remotely want to be there. I can’t say I blame him. Gold is some kind of shit-kicking mercenary. It seems like they’re trying to characterize him as a jet-set 007 type, but who also stomps around Commando-style killing everything that moves. His assignment is apparently to track down Ernest Borgnine’s character, who is some kind of scientist. Jim, I really think Borgnine’s character is a retired Nazi superweapon guy. Do you also think he is a retired Nazi superweapon guy?
Jim: It is … unclear, let’s say, given that he’s really not in the movie very long. Certainly, this isn’t the “Lee and Borgnine” action-buddy comedy we were surely hoping it would be. Instead Ernest gets taken hostage for the majority of the film, which made me laugh, because really—what’s the threat here? They act like there’s some kind of ticking clock, but the bad guys want him because he has the mind to somehow create new superweapons from lasers and the diamond. But like … those would take years to develop, right? It’s not like he can go into a cave and come out the next day with a death ray, Iron Man-style. Tony Stark he ain’t.
We call this look “Professor Brandon.”
Jim: Regardless, the true #2 of the film is Borgnine’s surprisingly ass-kicking and buxom “daughter,” who teams up with Lee to track her missing Dad down.
Ken: We meet her after Lee and Borgnine take tranquilizer darts to the neck. Lee wakes up in a prison cell, which he promptly breaks out of by slaughtering the whole platoon. The sequence, I can’t believe I’m writing this, ends when he kicks a guy into a guillotine and then kung fu kicks the release so that he decapitates a guy. We cut away without any look at the result, of course, and then Lee is just back in the United States instantaneously. It’s literally a jump cut from a stage fatality in the middle of a prison break to being back in the august offices of the CIA or whatever, and Lee is still wearing the same combat-stained white tank top.
Nice of the jailers to let the guy keep his watch, prior to execution.
Jim: The editing, Ken. My god, the editing. The film’s acting is bad, but its editing is on another level of “wait, what?” entirely. Brandon Lee will fall down, and the next shot he’s back on his feet. Their car gets blown up, and the next shot they’re 100 feet away from it, running on foot. Characters begin a fistfight in one location and then are shown continuing it somewhere else that is hundreds of yards away. And as with the guillotine sequence, action scenes just END in mid-action, suddenly cutting away to dialog in an office. It is hilariously jarring.
Ken: I kept thinking we should pause and resume the movie the following night due to the lateness of the hour, but things kept happening that were so bafflingly dumb that we couldn’t stop watching out of fascination. Including the introduction to Borgnine’s daughter, whose character name I already forget. She is described as being a veterinary scientist and then they just casually drop that she’s also with the KGB?? We’re introduced to her bottle-feeding lion cubs and placing pythons back in their enclosures in a setting that doesn’t at all look Soviet. She has the speech patterns of your grade school babysitter who actually read The Babysitter’s Club. But before we meet her, Jim, my god. Tell our readers about the scene wherein we are introduced to the Bulk and Skull of this movie.
Jim: Her name is “Alissa,” apparently. And ah, you must be talking about banana republic (Cuban?) soldiers Manuel and Roberta, a pair of bumbling, comic relief characters who absorb a bunch of slaps from Lee and from each other. They catch him red-handed parachuting into whatever country this is supposed to be, but Lee is now posing as a Hispanic military captain (he put on a fake mustache), so they’re completely and utterly tricked when he demands their Jeep for himself. I was wondering what you, an actual person of Cuban/Chinese descent, would think of Brandon Lee (a person of Chinese/Caucasian descent) pretending to be Hispanic.
Asian + mustache = Cuban
Ken: I can’t even begin to describe how ridiculously racist this whole exchange is. I’m not even personally offended so much as just in utter disbelief. This is 1990 we’re talking about here, and you’ve got Lee in what is basically Latino blackface, and these two actors putting on comically bad stereotypical accents. This is long, long after Bananas or any kind of comparable comedy where you could get any mileage out of making fun of Latin revolutions. This is before all the flap over Elian Gonzalez. This is happening in a country that also seems as if it contains stretches of desert that are either North African or maybe Mexican?? I’m coming unstuck in time and space, Jim. My molecules are going non-local.
Jim: Looks like it’s up to me to get us back on course, then. Lee teams up with Alissa, who is wearing a cleavage-tastic cocktail dress and high heels (on sand dunes in the desert) for the entire movie, and they embark in a series of wandering scenes and action scenes, driving around in a VW bus and firing automatic weapons and rocket launchers out the windows at various bad guys whose identities are really not clear. There’s a series of hilariously foreshadowed car flips and explosions, which you can all see in advance whenever they show a car that is clearly a junker designed to be blown up. “Mercenary Man” plays throughout.
Jim: These scenes don’t serve the plot in any way; they’re just there because someone knew these were the kinds of scenes you put in an action movie.
Ken: That’s very true. I want to add that this is exactly the kind of meaningless action movie violence you’d parody in a McBain sketch on The Simpsons. Videogame amounts of mooks are gunned down without so much as a blood squib. The heroes magically are impervious to bullets, their vehicle hardened against every kind of explosion, while the bad guys fall to effortless spray-and-pray gunfire. It’s so totally unintentionally funny.
Jim: Meanwhile, Dr. Borgnine is being held captive by this Austrian “soldier of fortune” and big game hunter named “Eckhart” in some undisclosed location, who is in league with Kalashnikov and the Russians. He’s my favorite character, because his home contains both a colorful chamber of horrors containing the heads of those men he has hunted, Most Dangerous Game-style, and a trophy room of random animals that are stacked all on top of each other, nailed to the wall and basically thrown together in a nausea-inducing tribute to randomness.
I have two of every creature, stuffed and mounted!
Jim: He has a STUFFED LION CUB, Ken.
Ken: It really just feels like this was written in the ’70s and left in a drawer somewhere, doesn’t it? In any event, after much wandering around and shooting, including traversing a 400-mile desert with no visible signs of sunburn or dehydration or anything, Michael and Alissa make it back to civilization on horseback. I have to mention the kung fu sword, too, Jim. Alissa kills a guy and takes his kung fu sword. He is a West African-looking mercenary wearing combat fatigues, and he has a kung fu sword, and she takes it, and she walks around with it for 400 miles in the desert. When they are attacked by another guy, she gets in a fight with him and instantly turns from a competent stunt-driver/gunfighter into a whiny damsel in distress. She drops the kung fu sword in the struggle. She does not pick up the kung fu sword afterward. She carried this kung fu sword for presumably at least dozens of miles through burning sands. This movie is nonsense.
I want to clarify it looks like a jian, but this movie has convinced me that white people’s brains just turn off if you aren’t talking about baseball, wrongly referring to football as “soccer,” or arguing in favor of trickle down economics, so I just called it a kung fu sword.
She strides the burning sands in this dress, and high heels.
Jim: I love the way mooks like that just come out of nowhere in this movie. They just spawn in your vicinity, wherever you are, like a videogame that won’t ever let you clear out an area.
Ken: Lee might kill the same blond horseman guy twice, I swear.
By the way, there is this one character who clearly was supposed to be in this movie and then just wasn’t. On their way out of the desert they meet some kindly old guy with a camp, who seems to know who they are, and then he’s just not there in the morning, and is never mentioned again.
Jim: That might be the single strangest thing in the film. Why did they keep the scene of them meeting up with this guy? Who the hell was he?
Regardless, they then progress to save Dr. Borgnine from Eckhart’s lair of stuffed animals and human heads in jars, but Lee is immediately captured. Describe for us the action sequence that follows, after Eckhart tells Lee that he’s going to give him “a fighting chance” and cuts his bonds.
Ken: This occurs after Lee wakes up next to Borgnine, who informs him that the bad guys are going to use the huge diamond and a laser to create “a nuclear weapon.” We paused it for a minute to soak this in. Then Lee is freed from his bonds, and, in a room stuffed with swords and weapons of every kind, the two have a fistfight that involves no weaponry. It ends on the outer wall of the fort, with both men falling off it. It’s at this point that
1.) Lee is perfectly fine
2.) Eckhart just disappears and
3.) Some guy in pseudo-ninja gear attacks Lee after an entire scene seems to have been cut.
There are perhaps 20 minutes left in this movie, and I was beginning to dread that we would see not one laser in it. (We don’t. There are no lasers in this mission.)
Jim: The ninja thing is a beautiful sequence of events. Lee grabs ahold of this completely unexplained guy in ninja gear and kills him with a pro wrestling-style backbreaker. Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of wrestling, Lee would definitely be getting chewed out backstage for refusing to sell ANY of the injuries he accrues in the film. He falls through a skylight, through a dinner table, and is fine. He falls off a three-story building, coughs up blood, and is fine. Later, he gets shot in the back, sprawls on his face … and is then fine. He’s celebrating with his friends at the end of the film, and no one is like “Hey, how’s your spine?”
It was nice of the movie to throw in 15 seconds of random Godfrey Ho ninja footage as a bonus.
Ken: Nobody is selling anything in this movie. We find out soldier Roberta and her dopey partner have been punished for their earlier incompetence with chain gang duty. They improbably bust out during the final action sequence and defect to the good guys. And because they have gone from “comic relief villains” to “protagonists,” they become invincible and go jeeping around the compound spraying down thugs. They immediately throw up their hands in surrender when elderly, doddering Borgnine points a shotgun at them, of course.
Jim: Borgnine shoots a single bad guy in this sequence. I was left wondering whether that was something they demanded of him as part of his deal, or something HE wanted in order to show that he wasn’t completely useless as an obese, 72-year-old man shuffling around the archaeological dig where the final shootout is happening.
It’s cute that we’re meant to think Alissa is his daughter, rather than his granddaughter, by the way.
Ken: Of course, we learn she isn’t actually his daughter. How could we have seen it coming?
After shooting Kalashnikov and dumping him into the mine, the CIA guys show up with Borgnine’s actual daughter, and it’s revealed Alissa was another merc all along. Brandon Lee is very annoyed. We then kill Kalashnikov two more times, for real.
Jim: He gets triple killed pretty impressively, I must admit. The stuntman who gets hit by the car in the end and driven through a brick wall does a very dangerous-looking “crumple” move on the hood of their jeep. They put it in the trailer for a reason.
Give this guy a bonus.
Ken: Yeah, that actually was cringe-inducing. I guess somebody cared about their work in this thing.
Jim: And that’s pretty much it for Laser Mission. Let us each list our chief grievances. The first is pretty obvious: NO LASER GUNS IN THIS DAMN MOVIE, KEN.
Ken: That might be more unforgivable than my next grievance: inherent, wild-eyed xenophobia. The world is full of geographically mixed up deserts and jungles, and people with dumb accents who are ALL COMMIES, Jim. Hide your kids/wife.
Jim: It’s filled with Russians who speak German, and Cubans who are African, and Asian men disguised as Hispanic men.
Ken: Clearly what they need is freedom.
Jim: If only there were a country. A country where all could be oppressed equally. Ahem, I mean, “a country where all who are vaguely brown could be oppressed equally,” sorry.
Ken: I wonder what kind of movies such a country would make. My last, personal grievance: Lee and Borgnine spout the dumbest dialogue of both their careers here. This is going to make The Crow a weird experience for me when I watch it next.
Jim: There’s only one cure: Listening to “Mercenary Man” an additional four to six times.
Ken: God help us all. Until next time, sir.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.