THE EXCELLENT EIGHTIES: Laser Mission (1989)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rob Brown is one of the two or three people who write for us that has his own IMDB page. He also has a cool Dragon Sound t-shirt.

Laser Mission is a 1989 action film starring Brandon Lee, Ernest Borgnine, and Debi Monohan. Lee plays Michael Gold, a mercenary hired by the CIA to bring in laser expert Dr. Braun (Borgnine), who is in danger of being captured and forced to build diamond-powered laser weaponry by a corrupt Soviet Colonel and a psychotic German soldier of fortune. The first attempt to get Braun to defect is thwarted when both men are captured and separated. Gold soon escapes and enlists the help of Braun’s daughter Alissa (Monohan) to find the doctor and prevent World War III.

I first saw this film in the mid-90s, probably around the time that The Crow was coming out or hitting home video, and sadly, that’s probably the only reason that anyone really bothered to check Laser Mission out. Brandon Lee had been appearing in films for several years, but had only recently emerged as a leading man before his untimely death. As was tradition pre-Internet, when an actor died, any distributors that had movies he appeared in cranked out cheap tapes with box art that wasn’t even for the movie that you were about to watch, with hopes that the newfound notoriety would get you to shell out $0.49 for that one-night rental. I specifically remember that the copy I picked up from the Hastings in Idaho Falls featured the same picture from the poster for Lee’s 1992 actioner Rapid Fire.

Was it any good, though? Even at the time, when I was 16 and would watch absolutely anything with a ninja or kickboxer in it (American or otherwise), I didn’t think it was “good”, but it was fun and memorable enough to want to revisit and talk about a quarter century later. I think I could appreciate a lot more about it this time around.

In the canon of 80s action movies, this one is sub-Cannon in its production values, but it’s just as absurd as its bigger-budgeted contemporaries and shows the same lack of regard for the lives of its performers as many of those same films that were just far enough under the mainstream radar to get away with it if they were able to shoot somewhere where they’d never be found.  In this film’s case, we spend much of our time in Namibia.  I was confused at first, as the characters in this film seem to come from all over the world (A Russian and German are running the show, supported by Cuban and African soldiers) and a lot of the signage in this movie is in Portuguese, but a little Googling revealed to me that most of the countries that use it as their official language are right there in that part of Africa.

Oh, and there are no lasers. Not a single one. Lots of talk of lasers and preventing the creation of laser weaponry, but none to be seen. It’s probably better that way, as I can’t imagine what that effect would look like in this movie. After all, when we see the theft of the Verbig Diamond in the film’s prolog (“Larger than the Hope, more spectacular than the Cullinan”), the place looks less like a museum and more like an Olive Garden that got shut down early for a private work party.  A bunch of goons get armed up in a Commando-like gearing-up scene, but they end up just gassing the whole room and walking out with the diamond without any shots fired or casualties, like in an episode of Batman. Aside from not using lasers or real diamonds, a lot of the sets are very sparse. Half the interiors look the same, whether it’s supposed to be a hotel, university, airport, or an apartment building. At one point during his escape from an African prison, where he was sentenced to die the next day by guillotine (a gift from the Belgian king in 1907), Gold knocks a guard unconscious and leaves through a door, only to enter the next shot through the SAME door, complete with unconscious guard still slumped over in the corner, running back down the same hallway that he just came from. I could go on and on about the cheapness of the film all day, but it’s more of a “seeing is believing” (or not believing you’re hearing the same song for the fifth time) kind of thing that’s more fun to discover for yourself.

(David Knopfler’s “Mercenary Man” plays.)

The action in the film is totally fine, with a few standout stunts that really go for it that mostly involve out-of-control vehicles and people being launched from them, as well as some impressive falls, a full body burn at one point, and guys really selling the hell out of the beatings they’re taking. Brandon Lee’s father was Bruce Lee, of course, and he’s quite a martial artist on his own, but they seem to make him more of a traditional American action hero here.  He has more of a brawling style that works better when you’re being attacked in the middle of a desert by a variety of hired guns, including probably the only white guy in a karate gi on the entire African continent.  The film’s director, Beau Smith, only made a handful of films before finding his niche in directing documentary specials and shows, but he has had a very extensive career performing and coordinating stunts in nearly 150 projects, most recently in 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The performances are not bad, but they do get sketchy once you get away from the main characters. Lee is a lot of fun and is certainly charismatic and makes the most of what he’s given. As far as Michael Gold is concerned, I think they were shooting more for a Bond-like character, but he comes off as more of a sarcastic smartass. He has good chemistry with his co-stars and doesn’t seem to be phoning it in, but his one-liners don’t seem to rise very far above a “See ya, but I wouldn’t want to be ya”. I don’t know if he thought that this role would propel him to bigger and better things quite yet, but he’s trying.  Ernest Borgnine has just a handful of scenes, and while he appears happy to be there, he doesn’t seem to be putting a lot of effort into trying to pass for German, aside from saying “Liebchen” a lot. Debi Monohan is someone I didn’t recognize that would go on to have a pretty solid run of guest appearances on sitcoms and action shows throughout the 90s, and she’s pretty solid in this part as someone that could have easily been a damsel in distress that ends up being as much a part of the action as anyone else. Her and Lee have a good rapport and a back-and-forth that doesn’t feel too scripted or forced. The actors portraying the Russian Colonel and German villain also play those types well, but it gets kind of weird the further down the call sheet you go. Early on, we’re introduced to a pair of bumbling Cuban soldiers that serve as comic relief in a film that doesn’t really need it that somehow manage to Forrest Gump their way into all of the important events of the film after first encountering the very not-Hispanic Michael Gold impersonating their commanding officer. After that, it’s mostly extras with a few words here and there that don’t seem to understand the lines they’re deadpanning, which doesn’t really help sell Lee’s lame one-liners any better, but they all appear to be local hires that probably don’t speak English as a first or second language, so good for them.

Overall, Laser Mission is a quick, goofy way to spend eighty minutes.  It’s probably exactly the same movie that my 11-year-old self would have cooked up in 1989 if everything I knew about action was based on the twenty minutes I remembered from A View To A Kill, A-Team reruns, and a hundred episodes or so of GI Joe, all on what appeared to be a Nollywood budget. It’s rated R, I’m guessing for violence and very brief semi-nudity, but could probably pass for PG-13, as the violence is mostly bloodless and there isn’t any gore that I can remember.  This film can be found in the “Excellent Eighties” DVD collection from Mill Creek Entertainment.

(David Knopfler’s “Mercenary Man” plays…again.)

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