Crash and Burn

Robot Jox

There is a simple joy in watching a giant robot beat the shit out of things. This has been a formula for many movies, TV shows, and anime series for years. Take a giant robot, set up a villainous enemy for it to fight, and then watch as the robots fight and make delightful, crunchy noises. Add explosions and cool weapons as need be, and then go relax on the giant pile of cash you’re likely going to make because, seriously, this is a timeless formula that can never truly fail. And even when it does fail, is it really a failure at all?

Robot Jox was released in 1990 and was an immediate failure at the Box Office. Made for a tiny budget of just $10 Mil, it only managed to make $1.3 Mil in sales, which is a sad, little number. And yet, as with so many movies of the era (see also: Gleaming the Cube), it was able to find a second life on home video and pay cable. This led to it becoming something of a cult classic, a treasured film among the young fans that saw it. It’s a goofy, dumb, silly movie about giant robots bashing the ever loving shit out of each other, but that’s also why it works. It wasn’t meant to do well in theaters – no matter what the producers might have thought, this is pay cable trash of the highest order – but it could find the life it deserved as a cult classic after the fact.

And boy, did it find that audience. Kids of the 1980s delighted in seeing these robots smash against each other, over and over, as the movie played relentlessly on cable. I had friends that talked about the cool machines of this film, while quoting the catchphrase of the pilots (the so-called “jox” of the film): “crash and burn.” It’s meant to be a way to say, “good luck”, like “break a leg” for performers. But it also became a catchphrase among those that saw the film. Hell, it was even referenced, knowingly, in the 1994 goofy cult classic Hackers. This was a very specific film made for a very specific audience, and it found it, living it’s best life among the small subset that enjoyed it.

When you go in and watch the film you have to admit to its charms. It has terrible sets (with production values that make The Omega Man look good), C-list level acting, and not a single star in sight. And yet none of that matters when the robots come into play. This film uses a lot of really slick looking stop-motion effects, creating robots that animate smoothly and look fairly impressive. It’s no Pacific Rim, mind you, but that was a $200 Mil film made with the benefit of CGI, with auteur director Gillermo Del Toro behind the helm, while this was directed by Stuart Gordon, the man behind The Re-Animator, with a shoe-string budget that probably couldn’t afford shoe strings. You do what you can with what you’ve got and, to its credit, Robot Jox did.

The film, to be a “success” by the measure of its viewers, has to deliver on the robot action. Sure, it would have been nice to have a good story, good acting, and characters you could care about, but we’re here for the robotic action and, at least on that front, it does deliver. There are two good matchups between the bots – an early arena fight between the hero and villain, and then their follow-up match to close out the film – and both of those have the energy, and chaos, needed to really get viewers to pay attention. Sadly that does mean there’s a good hour of padding around those two key moments, but considering this is a mech film made on $10 Mil, that’s understandable. Frankly, if you just watched those two fights on YouTube (and skipped the rest of the film), you’d probably have all you wanted or needed from Robot Jox.

But if you’re going to stick around for the rest of the film, here’s what you need to know. Our hero is Jim, aka “Achilles” (Gary Graham), the last surviving member of the old guard Robot Jox team. As the defenders of the American-led Market, they regularly do battle against the Soviet-led Confederation, all for control of the world. These contests are run like sporting events, with rules, and phases, and even referees watching the whole process. Fights are one-on-one, with the two mechs facing off against each other until one is defeated (but not necessarily dead). Achilles has to take on Alexander (Paul Koslo), the Russian jock, for a controlling stake in the independent state of Alaska. But their first battle ends in a draw and the referees state they have to battle again one week later.

The only problem with that is Achilles wants out. He has a contract for ten fights and, with the draw in the arena, he’s hit his ten. Plus, in the carnage of that last fight, a number of spectators died and that has weighed heavy on Jim’s mind. So he retires, with everyone calling him a coward, and a new breed of pilot has to be found. This brings in the test-tube pilots, those bred in a lab and grown, yes, from genetic material. One of these new pilots, Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), is a real stand-out, and she earns the right to be the next jock for the Market. But when Jim hears this he comes back to fight one last time (to save Athena, who he likes, from a potential death in the ring). Can Achilles pull it together and defeat Alexander? Can he secure control of vital resources the Market needs? Only a battle in the ring can determine the fate of the world.

Robot Jox does not lack for ideas. From its post-apocalyptic setting, to its giant mech battles, to the Hunger Games-like fight for the world’s resources, the concepts of the film hint at a deep and complex story running behind all these robot battles. A different film would have had the time, money, and drive to be able to explore all that, to really show us the war that led to this new world, the setup needed for us to truly invest in these fights to the death between mechs. But for all the ideas that screenwriter Joe Halderman put into this film, the movie isn’t able to show enough for us to really get invested. It has the ideas, but not the ability to make us care.

After watching this movie it’s still hard for me to understand the exact societal structure of this new world. Clearly substituting in the Market and the Confederation for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. allows the film to short-hand the politics and setting, but that still doesn’t explain how the lives of the people work here. Are they living on basic income from the government or do they still have to have jobs? Everything seems dirty and cheap, but that might just have been because of the budget of the film. Is this world on the brink? Is everyone poor? What does bringing Alaska into the Market do for the citizens?

I doubt we’re really supposed to think on all this, but there’s enough downtime between the big fights in the film that you can’t help but start to pull apart the setting. It’s all a setup for the robot fighting, I get that, but the film wants us to care about the characters and I can’t really do that when I don’t know what they’re fighting for and what it means. Everything in the film around the robot battles feels shallow and basic, a set dressing to give us just enough context so we can get to the next scene, the next setup, and then the next fight. It’s too basic, too threadbare in its development, that it just doesn’t work.

But, again, if all you’re here for are the mech fights then this film does deliver its fun, cheap thrills. The two battles are pretty good, with detailed robots and solid animation (for the time and the style). They aren’t enough to make up for the failings of the film, in large part because there’s just not enough mech sequences to properly paper over the flaws of the film (again, this is no Pacific Rim). The joy of this film is seeing the mech battle each other, but those scenes take up ten minutes (if that) of the whole film. As I noted above, you could go to YouTube and find a compilation of just those moments and, really, get all that you need out of Robot Jox. This film is about the simple joys and, once you’ve had those, you can be done with the movie.

This isn’t a good film. It’s really a pretty dumb, terrible movie. But for a few, brief moments it shines bright. You can enjoy the film for those moments, or just go and find the specific clips you want to see. I really can’t blame you either way.