by Dean Brandum
I’m guessing it was around March of 1986 when I saw Runaway Train at Hoyts’ Midcity complex on its opening weekend here in Melbourne. The film had been praised by a number of critics as a thoughtful and exciting action film, the fact it was based on an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa validated its potential of quality. With several Oscar nominations to boot, the expectations of the small, but anticipative audience were high.
The trailers and ads finished, the curtains adjusted – we were ready. And then it happened. The Cannon logo appeared onscreen and the audience groaned with dismay. We were to be duped. No philosophical musings on man’s savagery to come, instead it would be a cheap and nasty flick churned out for that lowest-common-denominator viewer, the dimwitted fan of Dudikoff and Bronson, one turned on by the putrid vigilante violence of such bottom shelf of the video store sludge. Never had I heard an audience diss a film logo before and nor have I since, but such was the notoriety of Cannon films that such outrage was justified.
Do you remember the Cannon logo? Look it up on youtube. That cold, blue metallic style so favoured by corporate promoters in the 1980s, ticking all the necessary boxes of the day – efficiency, synthesis, functionality – complete with a reverbing synthesizer.
Pretty soon the audience at Runaway Train settled into the experience and presumably enjoyed it – I know I did and to me it remains possibly Cannon’s finest achievement. Yet at the time I was well aware of the film being a Cannon production and to myself might have given a small cheer, for although Cannon’s reputation was for junk (which I invariably paid to see) I knew that the company, in its bizarrely schizophrenic manner, was determined to be seen a purveyor of high art cinema and taken seriously as such. It was this attitude, this desperate need for critical and peer respect that helped make the company the laughing stock of the industry and the critics’ whipping boy. Perhaps if they’d known their place and been happy to just mine the low-budget exploitation market they would have been ignored, but for a while, their ambitions, riding on a wave of bravura, chutzpah and just plain bullshit took them to the position of Hollywood’s foremost mini-major, their share price riding high even though few people were actually interested in seeing their films. Eventually the bubble burst and in the dying years of the 1980s the company collapsed, its heads Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus parting ways and since reduced to the smaller tables in the corners of world film markets.
Nearly that nearly two decades have passed since Cannon’s demise, how can and should we look back on their output?
If you mention Cannon to an aging buff you would more than likely elicit a hearty chuckle and memories of a tired Charles Bronson, a young Van Damme and Chuck Norris in his prime. This appears to be Cannon’s legacy – medium-low budget action flicks; suitable for drive-ins and grindhouses but produced a decade after such venues had closed. So instead of the romantic nostalgia of seeing Death Wish 3 at the mothbitten Albany/Roma/Star/Galaxy/Metro (insert your own, much loved fleapit here) or local ozoner, it would have more likely been screened in the pokier screens of your larger inner-city multiplex, a 100-seat box with floor to ceiling carpet.
Combine that with the Cannon visual aesthetic (cold, fluorescent and lots of concrete – call it cinematic brutalism) and those too-recent-romanticize fashions cobbled together by the cash-strapped costume and hair departments (the characters, even those apprently in positions of power, always looked so darn cut-rate and suburban) and the memories of Cannon are pretty grim. The aural chintzings of the synthesising Gary Changs and Jay Chattaways only compounds the pain.
There were times when Cannon aimed to have their fare last longer then a week on screen but their forays into matching it with the majors have passed into Hollywood lore for their sheer ineptitude. Perhaps Cannon’s entire legacy is best exemplified by its dealings with Sylvester Stallone. In 1985 Sly was, without a doubt, the biggest star in the world. In that year he managed the one-two punch of Rocky IV (domestic gross: $125 million) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (domestic gross: $150 million). Cannon spent that year trumpeting (and boy did they carry on about it!) the fact he was to star in their upcoming Over the Top and paying him $12 million to sign on (and to sign off much of his future career). With the boxoffice’s most bankable name on board, how could they go wrong? Well, by having him star in a story about professional arm wrestlers (gee, there’s one ‘sport’ that has been crying out for the big screen treatment) was one way to do it. Having Menaham Golan himself direct the film in his own inimitable manner (lunk of head and ham of fist) was another. Cannon’s marketing department, responsible for the least appealing campaigns of the decade, completed the task by making Over the Top look as cheap and tacky as the usual Cannon fodder they could not sell. When it was released in 1986 Over the Top grossed $16 million domestic – an abysmal return considering Stallone’s calibre, worse still considering the rentals would have not covered half of the star’s wage. Ahh Cannon – if only they put as much effort into making and selling their films as they did announcing their imminent production.
Other such attempts at playing the blockbuster game included obtaining the rights to make Superman IV, then pruning back the budget to above-the-line costs only (Reeve and Hackman) and managing to bury the franchise entirely with the worst of the series. Masters of the Universe seems to have its defenders but I’ll reserve judgement as even 20 years ago I was loath to part with my hard-earned for comic-book action figurey flicks.
To my mind the best of Cannon’s blockbuster efforts was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce – a batty B-premise given the A-treatment (to the tune of $25 million in 1985 coin). Mathilda May’s gratuitous nudity, crazed space vampires, London as the setting and the notion that Steve Railsback could carry a film. Absolutely enjoyable and a prime example of how Golan and Globus had little idea of how to forge an audience-pleasing project. And thank god for that. Any major studio would have vetoed Life Force as an expensive Hammer film. In their naivety, Cannon thought they were on a box-office winner. Hey guys, I did my bit and showed up.
I also showed up to 52 Pick-Up (1985), in which Cannon provided cinematic asylum to the once mighty John Frankenheimer, allowing him to direct one of the very best Elmore Leonard adaptations to screen. This is one of the rare cases when the aforementioned Cannon aesthetic works to a film’s advantage. The scuzzy atmosphere, exploitative nudity and gratuitous violence do justice to Leonard’s milieu of low life on the outskirts of the Los Angeles skin industry. Once again, Golan and Globus were unable to see that such content would dissuade more viewers than it would bring in. Never let it be said that these moguls delivered overly slick product. Slick was not in their vocabulary. Their effect was even felt on films which they did not produce. Case in point was the Stallone vehicle, Cobra (1986). This was a Warner Brothers release that only had a nominal Golan-Globus on-screen production credit (this was due to Cannon nullifying an agreement they had with the actor in order to pocket a million much-needed dollars from Warners). Otherwise, Cannon had no creative input into Cobra and nor would they receive any financial return from the project. However, for all of Warners’ expense and experienced sheen, Cobra – one of the more putrid releases of a mostly putrid decade – had the fetid stench of Cannon wafting from every sprocket hole.
But…but…it is far too easy to rip into Cannon and if that was the only purpose of this post then it would not have been written in the first place. For harking back to my opening comments, the poor reputation of Cannon may have infected their better films to the point of audience turn-off, but better films they did produce or distribute. Rather than being just ill-bred cowboys, Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus were true film lovers and did wish to be appreciated by those of a higher brow. Indeed, for all the atrocious work Golan directed in his time with Cannon, he had once been recognised as Israel’s most promising director. Films such as Fortuna (1966), My Margo (1969) and Highway Queen (1971) all received international distribution and some acclaim leading to his best feature as director, Lepke (1975), with Tony Curtis (in fine form) as the Jewish gangster. It must also be acknowledged that his Operation Thunderbolt (1977) was better than either of the more star laden, American productions that retold the events of rescuing the hostages from Entebbe airport.
Sadly there is little that follows that is evident of such early talent. Quite typical of the later Golan is that he can hack out such dreck as Death Game (2001) and Final Combat (2003) yet in the year between helm a version of Crime and Punishment. Such is the story of Golan as it was with Cannon: there was no real distinction between high and low cinema. Arthouse and exploitation, they were all handled and marketed as the same goods and unfortunately, the rotten produce contaminated the many fine films the company released.
Which other major studio (or even mini-major, for that matter) in the 1980s would have given the time of day to the likes of Jean Luc-Godard, Norman Mailer, Andrei Konchalovsky, Emir Kusterica, Barbet Schroeder, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Jason Miller, Liliana Cavani, Lina Wertmuller, Franco Zefirelli, Harry Hook, Neil Jordan, Dusan Mackavejev, Godfrey Reggio, Fons Rademakers and Nicholas Roeg? Not many.
Miramax were held up as a later business model that would differentiate its product and market it appropriately. Cannon had no qualms about announcing Death Wish 3 alongside Fool for Love and selling them both in the same, crude manner. Yet the still employed these filmmakers, most of whom spoke highly of their time with the company but sadly, although some of these films met with critical acclaim, few made any money. But this was the story of Cannon – for even most of their Bronson and Norris flicks barely went into profit (due to the excessively wide releases afforded to such junk) and on the few occasions they had a bankable star they would somehow botch the deal.
Cannon have long gone and sadly we will probably never see their likes again. As a final treat I would like to end with a gallery of films the company announced but never produced. Would these titles have made a difference to Cannon’s reputation or bottom line? Who knows?
(Apologies for the blurry quality of some of these images. Too big for the scanner, the camera did not do them justice.)