Neon City

Director: Monte Markham              
Michael Ironside, Vanity, Lyle Alzado

Michael Ironside - the actor with the receding hairline and the snarl on his lips. He first got wide exposure in the early '80s as the evil killer scanner Darryl Revok in Scanners, and as the knife-wielding stalker who was after Lee Grant in Visiting Hours. Some other prominent roles he later played include the psycho government agent in Watchers, the sadistic henchman in Total Recall who was eventually made 'armless (heh heh) by "Well, boys, the only good Indian motorcycle is a *dead* Indian motorcycle" (Caption provided by Yaddo42)Schwarzenegger, the insane immortal after Christopher Lambert in Highlander 2: The Quickening, and... gee, he's certainly played more than his share of bad guys, hasn't he? Not only that, he has been so effective in playing these absolutely creepy louts, it's hard to imagine him as anything other than a villain. He seems to be more or less typecast as a bad guy, though in interviews he doesn't seem to mind that much. Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to review not just one of his movies, but one where he's given the rare chance to play a good guy.

In Neon City, Ironside plays bounty hunter hero Harry Stark. At least, I assume he's supposed to be the hero, since he's a really rough and gruff fellow with the hint of a snarl on his lips. Since there are meaner guys encountered in this movie, I guess he is the hero, though I think the proper term would be anti-hero. WhatVanity shows off her hair styling techniqueever kind of hero he is, it's kind of a disappointment to see Ironside the way he is here, especially since this kind of role is rare for him. Frequently, his character's sour disposition makes him almost come across as a bad guy who is masquerading not very well as a good guy. At least, the times when his character talks, which isn't as often as you'd think. And with a number of other characters getting focus in the movie, it's kind of odd having a hero who doesn't seem to have that much more focus than the supporting characters. The times when he is standing out, it's actually hard to get caught up by what he's doing; there's something unnatural looking about Ironside in this movie. The features on his face don't stand out, almost as if the makeup artist didn't touch up his face for the camera lens. His hair, except for the ponytail, looks as if it's paint on a bald hair. He looks strange.

Ironside's Harry Stark is a bounty hunter in the year 2053, where the world's environment has gone to hell after the ozone layer was destroyed in a botched scientific experiment. At the beginning of the movie, we see him capture an escaped prisoner (played by Vanity - her character's name according to the credits is "Reno", though I don't think it's actually Neon City mentioned once during the movie) at a remote outpost. He then drags her back to civilization (at least, what passes for civilization now) to turn her in and collect the reward. Though once he's there, he discovers that he now has to hand her  over to the authorities in Neon City. Not only is it several days journey from where Stalk is now, it's through territory plagued by gun-wielding bandits, as well as pockets of polluted air and lethal sun rays. Several subsequent circumstances beyond his control soon find himself and Reno aboard a large armored transport vehicle on its way to Neon City, along with a variety of other passengers, among them a spoiled socialite, a comedian, a doctor, a woman who apparently knows Stark from the past, and an ex-convict that Stark put in jail five years earlier. In other words, what we have here is an update of the classic movie Stagecoach; it goes to show that the western isn't dead, just evolved into other genres.

We may have the framework of Stagecoach, but we don't have that movie's interesting characters or character interactions. I've already mentioned how Ironside's character does not have the verbal or visual impact he should have. Though Vanity is gorgeous as usual, she has very little to say, and she doesn't speak this little material in any interesting or compelling way. Their two characters as a result have essentially no chemistry together, neither in a hostile or the inevitable romantic sense. (Yes, Ironside and Vanity have a love scene, though Ironside used Just For Men gel - though did he have any hair in the first place? fortunately the scene is lit so dimly we hardly see a thing that will turn our stomachs.) Lyle Alzado (in his last role) doesn't get to do much, even though his character has some conflict with Ironside's. Still, he's charismatic and he does try hard when he gets something, and he actually manages to make more of an impression than Ironside. At times, it's clear he's having fun, and the viewer will get caught up by his enthusiasm. The rest of the characters, despite their potential, in the end don't make themselves different from each other. They don't get to interact much, though when there is some interaction a nice or memorable moment does come out. If the screenplay had gone for more of this, who knows what we might have had here.

The movie may not do well in giving us compelling characters and dialogue, but when it comes to portraying a world gone berserk, it's first rate. Seldom have I ever seen in a low budget movie - or that that matter, a large budget movie - such a convincing portrayal of a post-holocaust world. Shot in the Utah flatlands during winter, the frozen landscape effectively gives us the feeling that the sun no longer shines warmly on the world. There is also skillful use of filtered lenses to distort the color of the landscape just enough for us to immediately sense that something is not quite right here. Seeing the characters exhale their visible breath, while completely covered with rags and blankets to protect them both from the cold and the harmful rays of the sun, we get an excellent sense as to how deadly this environment is.

In other post-holocaust movies, when people are wearing an assortment or rags or blankets, or their wobbly hovels are filled with rusted junk from better years ago, it looks phony, as if the costumer or set designer just threw together what was available without bothering to adjust it in any way. But here, everything looks convincing, looks like it's been worn Competent post-apocalypse bad guys know to NOT to use Firestone tires or used for some time, and seems to be there for one purpose or another, not just being there for set decoration. There are abandoned buildings used, like other post-apocalypse movies, but instead of looking like abandoned buildings, they look as if they were damaged by the ravages of this environmental holocaust. There's not one scene where there is a glimpse of something that doesn't look right for the particular setting. We enter and experience this hell on earth without it being diluted in any way.

Is Neon City a terrible movie? No, it certainly isn't; I was never bored while I was watching it, because there was something of interest to look at every few minutes. But while its facade looks good, the interior, while not repugnant, is lacking life. Not just with the characters and their interactions, but in other areas. (The action sequences, for one thing, are mostly generic.) While it's a movie that passes the time adequately enough, it has nothing that will compel a viewer to rush out and find it, or make them want to see it again after watching it. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I would have cashed in some of this movie's good look for a screenplay with more substance.

UPDATE: "Sandra" sent this in:

"You are wrong about no one calling Vanity’s character by her name.  She’s called Reno at least half a dozen times that I heard.  I hear the actress later became a minister .  She was certainly beautiful, despite the Bellatrix LeStrange hair."

Don't know how I missed that, but I acknowledge that I made a mistake. Thank you, Sandra!

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See also: America 3000, No Blade Of Grass, Survivor