The Sender

Director: Richard Pepin                         
Michael Madsen, R. Lee Ermey, Robert Vaughn

Well, it had to happen sooner or later, I suppose. You can't be perfect all the time; eventually you'll screw up. That's what's happened to P.M. Entertainment, the company who for the past several years has been putting out a constant supply of very pleasing slick action movies. But with The Sender, their track record is broken. What's surprising is not that I wasn't expecting them not to eventually come up with a disappointing movie. No, what is really surprising is that they have managed to almost completely screw things up with this movie. Almost everything that made their previous movies so great is either missing or incompetently handled here.

What went wrong? At first, it seems like it'll be good; the movie was directed by Pepin, one of the heads of P.M., who has previously directed some entertaining movies; Madsen did a good job in his previous P.M. movie Executive Target; the cast also includes cult favorites Ermey and Vaughn; and there's nothing really wrong with the premise of the movie. But everything is handled in such a sloppy manner or with no enthusiasm (in front of or behind the camera). I'm not sure why this movie went so wrong, but I found some possible clues in the credits. The opening credits, instead of saying "A Joseph Merhi / Richard Pepin Production" instead indicate a co-production with the words "In Association With Choctaw, Inc.". So sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth, but there's also the possibility P.M. took over a troubled production. Possible clues to that possibility can be found in the closing credits - the film lists three units (an unusual amount for a B-movie), and for the Second Unit, there are credits not only for the director, but for a "First Assistant Director", "Second Assistant Director, and a "Second Second Assistant Director"! If a Second Unit needs that much help, you know there has to be trouble.

Whether there were some problems behind the scenes or not, the results are bad all the same. As I said before, the movie doesn't immediately start off bad. The plot: In 1965, Air Force pilot Jack Grayson and his squad are flying their propeller driven fighters (in 1965?) in the Bermuda Triangle. Suddenly, their instruments go crazy, and a gigantic U.F.O. comes out of the clouds (an excellent special effect, by the way.) Grayson gets into a dogfight with a smaller U.F.O. coming from the main ship, but ends up with his plane downed into the sea. The three other pilots decide to keep the incident a secret.

So far, so good. Cut to present-day L.A. at the shipyards, where the wreckage of Grayson's plane, recently discovered, has been shipped. When sent to Edwards Air Force Base, the son of Grayson (Dallas, working in Naval Intelligence), demands to see the plane, just driven to the base. Suddenly, several unidentified nutcases commandeer the truck and drives off with the airplane, leading to a chase. This is where the movie starts to go wrong. How did Dallas know about the plane? How did he know it was his father's? Who are these nutcases (who are never identified or mentioned again after the chase)? The chase soon has Dallas struggling on the flatbed of the truck with them, trading punches and rolling around, with his sunglasses somehow staying on his face. This could have been a cool sequence, but it is directed so badly - too many close-ups of the occupants in cars, and the camera pointing at awkward angles during the inevitable car crash scenes - that it seems even the editor couldn't get the sequence to make sense or exciting.

Afterwards, Dallas picks up his daughter from the hospital, where she has just made a miraculous recovery from terminal cancer. Her claims of being saved by an "angel" are closer to the truth than he thinks - unknown to him, it turns out that she has been given frequent secret visits by a woman who is obviously from another world. During another visit that night, a government SWAT team hides outside Dallas' house, tracking the alien. Breaking in, they just miss getting the alien, but kidnap Dallas' daughter, badly wound Dallas, and set a bomb in his house. The alien returns to save and heal Dallas in time (somehow also repairing the bullet hole and blood stain on his shirt), then teaming up with Dallas to tell him the truth and assist him in rescuing his daughter. When we learn the truth, it's kind of a letdown; we've pretty much guessed the "surprises" we learn. Plus, although there is a connection between the opening of the movie and the present events, it's a link so thin that the opening sequence could be completely cut out and the rest of the screenplay adjusted by just removing a few lines of dialogue.

Whatever the screenplay, P.M. movies live for one thing - the action sequences - but these subsequent scenes are all poorly handled. As usual for P.M., the movie is slickly shot, occasionally adding oomph to the action (there is a nice visual when an RV collides with a hay truck.) Slick cinematography can only add a little, so we are mainly treated to car chases that are handled about just as well as the chase earlier in the movie. One sequence intended to be a knockout - a dogfight over L.A. between helicopters and a U.F.O. - is ruined by the use of an incredibly dreary musical score. The dreariness of the movie seems to have drifted to the cast. Madsen is absolutely awful in this movie, giving no emotion or sound to lines like, "You son of a bitch - let my daughter go." His character doesn't really have that much depth to him, anyway, and double that for the "Angel" character. Think of the interesting conversations that could happen between a human and someone from another world. Not here.

Some interesting questions come up during the movie, including: If the "Angel" can zap cars off the road with her powers, why does she use a gun against the enemy at the end? Could a nuclear generator really blow up in less than three minutes? How come Robert Vaughn looks so much older than how he did a few years ago? Where are the transition scenes of people doing things like getting into their cars and onto the road? And what happened to the P.M. trademark of countless sequences of glass being broken?

The results of this mess combine to make a good-looking movie movie with a silly script that might have been saved by strong and competent directing. It's also a real disappointment from a company that has been trusted in the past to deliver the goods. Still, you have to look at the silver lining - this is the only bad P.M. movie to have been made in the past few years. I trust that soon they'll be back on track.

UPDATE: "Violator1969" sent this along:

"Wow...I'm actually making a minor contribution! In your review, you question the use of propeller-driven fighters in 1965, but that's actually valid. The US used at least one (which was, I think, the Douglas A-34 Skyraider, but I'm not sure) in Vietnam, as late as 1968 in limited numbers. It did some work as a forward air controller, but mostly served as surface-to-air missile bait because it was so slow. It spent the rest of its years as a trainer.

"Too bad the rest of the movie didn't fly as well as the plane."

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See also: Executive Target, The Silencers, Laserhawk