Con Express

Director: Terry Cunningham
Sean Patrick Flanery, Arnold Vosloo, Ursula Karven

In some respects, making a movie is easier than it has ever been. With the invention of affordable digital cameras, and the availability of special computer programs that can help with everything from writing a screenplay to editing shot footage, just about anyone can make their own movie if they want to. But there are certainly still a lot of hurdles low budget filmmakers have to tackle when it comes to every step of their project. One big problem that has come up in recent decades is that unless you have a substantial marketing budget and a good relationship with the various movie theater chains, it is now very difficult to get a movie into just about any movie theater. But if you managed to get to that stage with your movie, consider yourself lucky. There are so many obstacles low budget filmmakers have to face even before their film is completed. They often have the pressure of finding top grade talent who are willing to work either work in front of or behind the camera. And there are inevitable expenses ranging from props to getting catering for the craft table. Come to think about it, most of these problems low budget filmmakers have are due to one main thing: Having a lot less money to work with than the major Hollywood studios have for their big budget movies. That's not to say that a successful and entertaining movie can't be made for a limited amount of money. What it usually takes is a great amount of creativity by the filmmakers. Maybe, for example, by offering something in their movie that the major Hollywood studios don't always offer, like explicit gore or sexual material.

But it seems that many times, low budget filmmakers don't try to compensate for their lack of funds by using imagination to make their movies stick out from the pack. Many times they go for the most obvious route of trying to cut costs whenever possible. There are certainly a lot of ways low budget studios try to not spend more money than they think is needed. One way is the recycling of props and sets from other movies. But in recent years, there has popped up a new technique many low budget filmmakers use in order to cut costs. And that technique is to use footage from other movies. I am not talking about extreme cases like in Night Train To Terror, where the majority of the running time of the movie consists of footage from other projects. Instead, I am talking about movies that use from a few seconds to a few minutes of footage from other movies, usually footage that has action and/or special effects. In the past, I've reviewed a couple of movies that have done this. For example, the science fiction movie Tycus not only used special effects shots from the big budget movie Dante's Peak, it also used airplane footage from Air America. And in my free time, when I watch movies fully for pleasure and not to review later, I have seen countless other low budget movies use footage from other movies. For some reason, footage from the movie Narrow Margin seems to be very popular with low budget movie producers, specifically the scene where Gene Hackman and Ann Archer are wildly driving a truck through a forest while a machine gun-wielding assassin pursues them via a helicopter.

When I see a low budget movie using footage from Narrow Margin or any other big budget Hollywood movie, I can't help but wonder to myself: Do the producers of these movies think they are fooling anyone? Usually the footage is taken from a movie that at the very least has Con Expresshad both plenty of time on television and got plenty of rentals during the years the video store reigned supreme. So I can't be the only one who recognizes footage coming from another movie in cases like these. Needless to say, I don't like this cost-cutting practice, and I often use pre-viewing research to see if a low budget movie cheaps out and does it. That's how I found out Con Express did this before I watched it. So why did I all the same watch it? Well, it was from one of my favorite B movie studios, PM Entertainment. But this effort was made after studio heads Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin sold and left the company. I was curious to see if the old magic was still there with the heart of the company gone... and with cost-cutting measures enacted like I just described. The central character in the movie is a customs agent named Alex Brooks (Flanery, Boondock Saints). He and his fellow agents enact a bust where they catch Russian terrorist Anton Simeonov (Vosloo, The Mummy) and his mobster followers with a big load of nerve gas. Circumstances soon after force Alex to escort Anton onto a prison transport airplane to be taken to custody, with Russian agent Natalya (Karven) coming aboard to assist. During the flight, Anton manages to execute a clever escape, with Alex and Natalya barely managing to escape with their lives when the airplane crashes shortly afterwards. Anton's next step is to hijack with his followers a train that is carrying the nerve gas. Alex and Natalya find out about this, and realize that they are the only ones who can stop Anton from releasing the nerve gas.

Since I brought up in the first part of this review of mine for Con Express the topic of B movies that take footage from big budget Hollywood productions, it only seems right that my analysis of the movie should start off by looking at how this particular movie succeeds - or fails - with this technique. In total, Con Express uses footage from five other movies. Two of them are from other PM Entertainment movies - Steel Frontier and The Silencers, though they are just brief clips shown during the opening credit montage, so maybe this doesn't really count. However, the footage used from the other three movies definitely does. A sequence involving a plane crash uses footage from Cliffhanger, shots of the train with the nerve gas rushing down the tracks in a wintery wilderness come from Runaway Train, and the climactic scene at an airport takes a duel between a Mack truck and a propeller-driven airplane from the movie Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (Lord, don't ask me how I was able to recognize the footage from that last movie.) While I guess it's possible many viewers will have forgotten those three movies and not instantly recognize their footage here, I do think they will see that the way the footage is used doesn't seem to fit with the newly shot footage. The cinematography of the recycled scenes, for one thing, more often than not does not match the new footage surrounding them. The Cliffhanger footage, for example, looks darker and slightly out of focus. Also, what's going on in the recycled footage looks often more elaborate than what's seen in the newly shot footage, from the movements of the vehicles to the movements by the cameraman.

Despite those two aforementioned problems with Con Express' use of footage from other movies, the cost-cutting measure still might have worked had a third problem not occurred, and that is that the editing of the old footage with the new footage. The movie more often than not uses quick cuts of the old footage mixed in with the new, and because of this the movie seems unable to quickly build (and sustain) excitement with these scenes. But I think there is also a fourth reason, that being that the newly shot footage is simply not that exciting at all. There are several action sequences in the movie that are completely made up of new footage, and they come across as extremely mechanical and sluggish, from a warehouse shoot-out to a shoot-out at a cabin in the middle of the wilderness. While watching the movie, I came up with some theories as to why co-writer and director Terry Cunningham (The Chaos Factor) botched the action. One reason was probably not his fault, that being that the movie comes across as extremely cheap and impoverished throughout. The often wimpish sound of fired bullets, the low rent set decoration, as well as obvious use of military, nature, and train stock footage (some of which is repeated, believe it or not) are just some examples that suggest Cunningham didn't have a lot of money to spend. But Cunningham still must take a lot of blame for the sorry end results. Though I could spend some time listing the reasons why, I'll just stick with his biggest mistake: There is no feeling of tension or suspense at any moment. While the movie involves terrorists who are dead set on unleashing nerve gas on millions of innocent civilians, the movie's attitude isn't that this is a life or death struggle. This problem is simply shoved in front of the audience, jiggles slightly for a few seconds from the force of being pushed, then promptly stiffens up and slowly melts into nothing in front of us for the remainder of the movie.

But it's not just Cunningham's direction that makes Con Express fail so badly. It's also his less than inadequate script. Like with his direction, I could list a number of faults, but I'll just stick with the two biggest beefs I had with the writing. The first comes from the fact that the bulk of the movie is essentially one big flashback, occasionally cutting back to the present day where Flanery's character is telling an investigative committee (made up of only two people, by the way) what happened. I usually don't like this kind of narrative, mainly because as in this case you know that the hero has survived his adventure and has already put it in his past. How then can we worry if he will survive when we flash back to his past where he is dodging bullets? What makes this narrative technique even worse for this particular usage is that is comes across as completely gratuitious padding; it apparently serves no other purpose. I got a strong feeling that the original cut of the movie was too short, so Flanery was called back for some additional shooting, that being these scenes. But getting back to the first problem I had with this framing device, where I said it made it hard to care about Flanery's character. Well, come to think of it, even with a more standard narrative, it would be hard to care one way or another about Flanery's character or any other character in the movie. Every character in Con Express comes across as flat and extremely familiar. We learn precious little about both the good guys and the bad guys. They are so bland that frankly I was really bored by them. The actors seem quite bored themselves for the most part, though actor Joel West (The Smokers) as a bald psychotic henchman does try to put in some spark when he's given a moment, though unfortunately that doesn't happen very often. In the end, watching Con Express will make you wonder why you are not instead watching one of the movies the movie takes footage from - even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!

(Posted December 25, 2021)

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See also: Act Of War, The Five Man Army, Tycus