Trancers (1985) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Tim Thomerson is kind of the grade-B Harrison Ford, inevitably a sly or seedy tough guy who is a reluctant hero. It is therefore fitting that Thomerson gets the Harrison Ford role when the first third of this film plays out as a grade-B version of 1982's Blade Runner. Of course, the rest of the movie is a rip-off of 1984's Terminator, but I guess that's how the whole wacky grade-B thing works.
Thomerson is a future cop named Jack Deth whose beat is the city built upon the ruins of Los Angeles, which was destroyed by a massive earthquake and tidal wave. Deth eats in sleazy street diners and his specialty is retiring replicants ... er ... I mean trancers, humans who come under the spell of an evil guy named Whistler who wants to plunge the world into chaos. Deth retires a few trancers, and thinks he can hang up his ray guns after he kills the nefarious Whistler himself on the seventh moon of some planet or another. Ol' Deth turns in his badge and goes scuba diving in the underwater ruins of Los Angeles. He wants nothing more than to work on his tan when the police chief shows up on the beach and reactivates Deth for ... (is your guess locked in?) ... one last job.
It seems Whistler was not killed after all and has hatched an invidious new plot involving time-travel to 1985. This takes us into the Terminator section of our plot. The only thing that keeps 23rd century Earth from degenerating into utter chaos is the benevolent rule of "The Council", but Whistler figures he can really fuck things up in the 23rd century by going back to pre-quake 20th century L.A. and killing off the ancestors of the councilors. Since Trancers is basically a no-budget movie, the process of time-travel consists of sending Deth back into the body of a 1985 ancestor who bears a strong resemblance to Jack Deth. In this identity, Jack must defeat another guy who bears a strong resemblance to Whistler. This time travel gimmick, using look-alike ancestors, managed to free the filmmakers from any further obligation to imagine or design the future, or even to pay for the services of an art director for the last 2/3 of the film.
When he arrives in 20th century Los Angeles, ol' Jack Deth hooks up with his ancestor's girlfriend, and together they fight Whistler and try to protect the councilors' ancestors: a former relief pitcher who looks like Rollie Fingers, and a muscular surfer dude who owns a tanning salon. Unfortunately, Deth gets to the surfer dude too late, after Whistler has already turned him into a surfing trancer. This was my favorite part of the film. The muscle man knocks Deth unconscious, so what do you think he will do next? Mind you, the entire purpose of Whistler's existence is to kill Jack Deth, so you'd expect the zombie surfer dude, under Whistler's expert mind control, to pick up Deth's gun and kill him, right?
Instead, he puts him in a tanning booth and sets the timer past the safety zone!
I guess it could have been worse. He could have tied him up and told him the plot twists.
I'm assuming he did not do so because there were no plot twists.
Anyway, Deth manages to get a fabulous tan, and does eventually manage to save Rollie Fingers, and thus earth itself. The whole thing gets resolved fairly predictably, except that Deth gets trapped in the 20th century with his ancestor's girlfriend, which he's perfectly happy with.
The film ends there, with the lovebirds smooching, but there's a big problem with that scenario: Whistler's ancestor was a cop, and he was exercising his trancer power over other cops so, in the process of the rescue, Deth and Lena (Helen Hunt) killed about a bazillion 20th century L.A. cops, and you'd have to think that the L.A.P.D. would not be happy with their explanation.
Obviously we're not supposed to take it seriously.
Tim Thomerson has always been most effective in two types of roles. One, as I mentioned earlier, is the seedy reluctant hero. The second is a parody character, the oh-too-serious action hero who proceeds with a comically rigid version of the tough loner pose. Thomerson gets to do both of his characters here, because the film just couldn't really decide whether it wanted to be an sci-fi adventure movie or a parody of same. Lots of situations in the film are played out for laughs. One of Whistler's 20th century trancers, for example, is a shopping mall Santa who engages Deth in a bloody fist and gun battle in front of some horrified children, ala Jay and Silent Bob's encounter with the Easter Bunny in Mallrats. At other times, Deth spends his free moments watching his favorite 20th century TV show - Peter Gunn. He also enjoys watching 20th century infomercials, especially the one for the great art reproductions, which includes his personal favorite, "Whistler's Mother."
The film certainly moves quickly and never gets a chance to wear out its welcome, since it runs only 76 minutes including the credits at both ends. I suppose the most similar grade-B film is Hell Comes to Frogtown. Both movies take place in a post-Apocalyptic world, and both resolve their plots seriously, but wink slyly at you along the way, just to let you know that they find their ideas just as silly as you do. Both heroes, Jack Deth and Sam Hell, are classic smart-ass anti-heroes, exaggerated for comic effect. Each film inspired several sequels. The only major difference is that Hell Comes to Frogtown has been brought to DVD with great care and expertise in a gorgeous re-mastered widescreen anamorphic transfer. The Trancers DVD, on the other hand, has no widescreen version, and the film looks like it has been transferred from a VHS tape, and not an especially good one.
After several years on video, Trancers built up a cult following and eventually inspired a theatrical sequel - which was made a full six years after the original! Three additional straight-to-vids were churned out in a hurry right after Trancers 2. That seemed to be the end of the franchise, but eventually there was also a Trancers 6. That one was more or less related in name only, because it was made eight years after Trancers 5, and seventeen years after the original, at which point Thomerson was no longer available to play the iconic Jack Deth, who is the heart of the franchise and its only raison d'etre.
Here's the series rundown:
Trancers III, (1992) (V) 5.1
Trancers 4: Jack of Swords, (1994) (V), 4.4
Trancers 5: Sudden Deth, (1994) (V), 3.6
Trancers 6, (2002) (V), 4.0 (No Thomerson.)
The original Trancers also offers you a chance to see a 21 year old Helen Hunt when she had neither fame nor breasts. She hadn't developed any acting ability or cheekbones yet, either. Hunt's career struggled for many years, and she was still available to come back as Mrs. Deth in the first two Trancers sequels in 1991 and 1992. Helen finally landed her sitcom breakthrough, Mad About You, in 1992, and that soon elevated her to national prominence and liberated her from the further need to play Lena Deth.
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