Take Your Power to the Max

Turbo Kid

If you grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s you saw a lot of media talking about “the distant future of 1997” or a year soon after. The 1980s thought the year 2000 was so far away (it wasn’t) and it was a future that would seem so different from what we were used to (it also wasn’t). Who among us would actually reach that far and fabled future? (Many of us.) And so the media of the time period presented that “distant future” as some strange and different, sometimes even a time period to be feared. Just look at The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day which said the apocalypse was coming for us in 1997. The end of the world would happen in 1997 and the year 2000 was going to be so different.

That is the gag of Turbo Kid, the 2015 film that presents itself as a lost film from the 1980s. Designed with a 1980s aesthetic in mind, from its tech to its music to its artistic design, Turbo Kid feels like the kind of film that you would have seen in some 1980s late night grindhouse presentation. It’s a post-apocalyptic, Mad MaxStarted with a single 1970s Australian exploitation flick (a popular genre in the country at the time), the Mad Max series went on to spawn three sequels, an entire genre, style, and what many consider the greatest action film of all time, Fury Road. Not bad from a little low-budget film about cars smashing each other after the fall of society. riff dressed up with all the trappings of an era so very afraid of its own future. And, for the record, it absolutely rocks. It’s silly and over the top and just a little bit stupid, but because of that it works so well. It knows the kind of film it wants to be and it embraces it full tilt.

Set in 1997, people roam the wasteland, riding on bikes (since gasoline doesn’t exist anymore), picking at scraps to find things to sell so they can trade for water. One of the people working salvage is the Kid (Munro Chambers) who has been on his own when his parents were murdered many years earlier. Even since he’s been living in a hidden bunker, collecting cool trinkets and trying to avoid being noticed by Zeus (Michael Ironside), the leader of the Wasteland. And while he’s been living on his own he’s been collecting the comics, and other paraphernalia of Turbo Rider, a superhero who fought against robots in the dystopian space adventure series.

One day, when wandering the wastes, the Kid comes across Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), a strange girl who immediately declares herself to be the Kid’s new friend. Although he doesn’t want her around, Apple follows him, actively tracking him so he can’t lose her. Eventually he gives up and embraces their friendship, even growing to like the weird girl. When she’s captured by Zeus’s goons to fight in Zeus’s battle pit, the Kid finds he has to go and save her, Thankfully he stumbles across an old ship, an abandoned relic of a bygone era. And, wouldn’t you know it, this old vehicle is actually the original Turbo Rider’s ship, complete with Turbo Rider’s corpse inside. Taking the dead man’s armor, and his power gauntlet, the Kid dresses up as his hero and becomes the new superhero of the wastes, Turbo Kid, ready to fight Zeus and his many minions.

As a co-production of Canada and New Zealand, Turbo Kid very much feels like a strange, exploitation relic of a bygone era. The film has all the weird trappings of the 1980s, delightfully so, but it’s also an over-the-top, bloody, carnage filled, post-apocalyptic adventure. It’s a child-like wish-fulfillment quest, as so many 1980s kids favorites were, but mixed with the violent action of Mad Max and other Aussie- and New Zealand-sploitation flicks of the era. And it’s glorious. It’s violent and stupid and so very tongue-in-cheek that you can’t help but enjoy its many charms.

Chief among them is that despite its silly trappings, the film takes its story seriously. Yes, it’s a movie about people riding around the wasteland on dirt bikes, but it never draws so much attention to its weird, silly touches. There’s no moment where people crack a joke about the wasteland they're in, or get on their bikes and then look at the screen with a knowing glance. This might be a silly movie but the characters treat it like it’s a serious adventure. The humor of the film comes from the deadpan seriousness of the situation. If they’d played it up for laughs it wouldn’t have been as fun.

Frankly I love the many chase sequences done on bikes. The directors – François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, who were also the writers on the film – clearly said, “let’s do Mad Max but on bikes,” and then committed to the bit. They have guys in huge, spiked armor, with skulls on their handlebars, riding around on dirt bikes chasing after each other. And they all do it like this is just another day in the wastes. It’s silly, yes, but the movie treats it like this is serious, action-packed stuff. These are high-tension action scenes, it’s saying, and we all just have to get on board. And we do because this is such glorious, high camp stuff here.

Of course, the gore and action really does help sell that. If this were a normal exploitation flick the amount of gore, of body parts flying, of viscera spraying around would just be part of the genre. But the fact that it’s juxtaposed against the child-like story of a kid that gets to become his own superhero, makes it feel more heightened and silly. But, again, that just adds to the thrill of it. It’s Mad Max on bikes, with all the violence and action you’d expect. If it were in cars then it would be seen as normal. The humor is that by putting it on bikes it becomes something more, and something better, than just another exploitation film.

Having a kid as the lead, and having him ride around on a bike also plays to another genre: the 1980s kid adventure. Think movies like E.T. and The Goonies, except with far more violence and gore than Steven Speilberg would ever have produced. If you cranked down the gore then this film could have fit perfectly in the era, and the genre, it was parodying. It taps into those same feelings of wonder, of being a kid on an adventure that you know is perilous but you have to do it anyway. It’s saying that being a kid doesn’t mean you can’t be a hero in a magical adventure. Kids of the era lapped that up and while those films still get made from time to time they don’t have that same vibe. This film finds that vibe and they purposefully puts it into a very silly, very adult movie, and it works.

But then that could have been said for another film of that time period: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That movie has that same vibe, a kid on an adventure who suddenly gets a super-power, in a sense, although in that case it’s an external source, the friendly Terminator that joins him. Heck, this film even lets the Kid team up with a robot to fight other foes (and robots), creating another parallel. And it has that same feeling of adventure, of fighting against the apocalypse, of being forced to grow up and accept loss. What you fight for is important but where you’re at in your life is fleeting and won’t last. That’s strong stuff for a silly, 1980s-infused action adventure parody.

I loved Turbo Kid. It is dumb, and silly, and over-the-top, but that’s all part of its glorious package. If it didn’t have just this right mix of elements – child-like wonder, Mad Max inspired mayhem, tongue-in-cheek humor played dead straight – it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun. But the creators nailed it just right and made a memorable, albeit really amusingly funny, film that just works.