Wednesday, January 13, 2010

DVD Review: Troma's War (1988)

According to company president and co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, his 1988 war movie spoof Troma's War is something of a cursed movie. Eviscerated by the MPAA upon its release, what Kaufman and company (allegedly) intended as a biting satire of Reagan/Rambo-era war-glorification ended up a defanged mess that pleased neither the die-hard Troma fanbase nor the mainstream movie-going public at which it was (allegedly) aimed. Seeking to rectify this gross historical injustice, Troma Team has now released an uncut, director-approved, extras-laden version as the latest entry in its "Tromasterpiece" DVD collection.

Those two "allegedlys" in the previous paragraph are not meant to diminish the seriousness of the MPAA's unfair treatment of the flick, nor the passion with which Kaufman and co-director Michael Herz constructed and defended the movie. However, anyone who is familiar with Uncle Lloyd's unique sense of humor and gleefully skewed world view must realize that he has a habit of comically over-aggrandizing his intentions and dropping over-the-top jokes into otherwise serious diatribes. It's what makes Troma what it is, in a way, but it also makes it difficult to know just how much of what we hear is to be taken at face value, and how much should be sent down to the salt mine for some minor flavoring.

The movie opens like Troma's version of Lost--a plane crashes on a remote, seemingly deserted island, with a large number of passengers inexplicably surviving the cataclysm. There's a handsome, take-charge hero type in Taylor (Sean Bowen), a tough-talking no-nonsense female hero in Lydia (Carolyn Beauchamp), a Southern-accented asshole with a penchant for violence and getting his own way named Parker (Rick Washburn), shy and constantly-eating fat guy Cooney (Ara Romanoff), a snooty elitist businessman for whom the crash is an inexcusable delay tho his schedule named Kirkland (Patrick Weathers), and a punk rock band from Tromaville. Rounding out the already huge cast are a crippled old man (one-armed instead of wheelchair-bound), a 007-style Englishman, a young mother with her infant daughter (instead of just being pregnant), a priest, a barely bilingual Hispanic woman, and a hysterical girl struck blind in the crash.

Lost n' Found

After some flashbacks to the fiery cataclysm of the previous night, some gratuitous nudity, and a few visual gags such as the priest offering confession through the window of the destroyed fuselage, the characters decide to go into the jungle and explore. (Also: fuck.) The punks find a maggot-ridden corpse by their makeout spot, and soon the whole group is under attack by a small army of terrorists and mercenaries, led by a pig-nosed, snorting Rambo-type (he's a FASCIST PIG, yageddit?) and a Kinski-esque German general. The terrorists are hatching a scheme to bring down the United States of America by dumping drugs into the water supply, forstering class warfare, infecting the populace with sexual diseases, and finally through guerilla assault. But even the grunts don't know that it's all setup by a pair of industrialists who hope to profit monetarily off all the confusion and get more right-wingers elected to further their corporate goals thanks to the resulting terror and need for "toughness on the Commies"--after all, people will give up freedom for security, and then they're easy pickins right? Of course it's up to the ragtag group of plane crash survivors to take on the baddies and save the day, for America, Mom, and gigantic breasts.

There is a deep cynicism and bitterness in the movie's portrayal of the military industrial complex, symbolized here by a pair of siamese twins joined at the face, one in a business suit and one in a General's uniform (the aforementioned masterminds). There's also some good old-fashioned conspiracy theory mongering, as in the scene where the German unveils his "AIDS Squad," a group of harmless looking people who are tasked with the mission of spreading AIDS across the US, let by the agressively repulsive and offensive Senor SIDA. (ba dump) The sell-your-mother-for-a-dollar businessman Kirkland is another easy target.

Subtle Satire

But as is often the case, the satirical points are sometimes buried under a mountain of sight-gags, fart jokes, and bare breasts. This is what makes Troma Troma, and nobody's apologizing for it. There's gore, rape, babies in peril, overblown German accents, and lots of fine explosions--all trademarks of the brand. There's also a clunky idealistic sweetness to some of the subplots, as when the blind girl falls in love with the fat man and inspires him to become a hero, or the one-armed geriatric offers to sacrifice himself for the good of all, since he has nothing to live for now that his wife has passed. This sweetness is present in much of Troma's output, though again it's often overshadowed by the animatronic penises and vomit guns.

That same mixture of cynicism and strange idealism comes through in the feature-length commentary track by Lloyd Kaufman, wherein he expounds bitterly and at length on the MPAA's treatment of the film and Troma's output in general, comparing some of the offensive cut scenes to similar scenes in MPAA-approved R or even PG-13 movies. And he has a point--the gross-outs in Troma's War are extreme, but so far over the top as to be cartoonish, and certainly nothing next to the bullet-based bodily dismemberment of Robocop or even the heart-ripping of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Watch out, that thing's loaded!

The idealism comes in when Kaufman starts talking about how he "followed his own vision" with the movie and considers it a near perfect expression of the Troma ethos, which he calls "a Cuisinart of strong a Troma movie you have comedy, science fiction, horror, AIDS, Shakespeare, whatever." It may be hard to understand why the director who seems serious about wanting to make a war movie satire that would appeal to the mainstream would still have one character snort like a pig between lines and another pop facial boils directly into the camera, but that's Lloyd's vision, and he followed it. This insistence on staying true to a skewed world view has alienated most viewers who've ever watched a Troma film, but has also won them their rabid following.

Of course Lloyd is a jokester as well, and when he claims that the flouncy male flight attendant "represents Troma's support of the gay community" or that a cut scene with the blind girl naked in a stream, unknowingly covered in leeches, was intended as an homage to The African Queen--you have to wonder how much of his talk about biting war satire is for real, and how much is typical Kaufmanian overselling.

Spandex Blowout

The DVD extras are rounded out by several cool interviews with members of the cast and crew, all of whom have entertaining stories to tell about the production. (Several mention nightly orgies in the barracks, for instance, which were apparently segregated by sexual perversion perference.) There's also the expected theatrical trailer.

As far as rating the movie itself, I'm prepared to believe Kaufman thinks it's an undiscovered masterpiece, but I'm not sure I fully agree. For Troma fans it has everything you could want, but not to the degree of say Tromeo and Juliet or Terror Firmer. For non-Troma fans...well, there won't be much to win you over. Still, Kaufman clearly makes movies for himself first; whether that qualifies as a success or not depends on your fandom. Therefore, 1.75 thumbs for the average viewer, 2.25 for Tromites, 2.5 for the loving dvd presentation.

She has vayz to mek you tawk.

1 comment:

J. Astro said...

Great review, Vicar! This is one of the few Troma titles that I would like to own that I don't yet, so I'm glad my lazy ass waited around long enough for the 'Tromasterpiece' edition. And I think it was most wise and King Solomon-like for you to bestow separate ratings for Troma fans -and- non-Troma fans.

I count myself among the fans, and occasionally there's some real wit and talent in Tromaville... but given the fact that Troma's catalogue often takes the stupid jokes a couple steps too far, I've reeeeally gotta be in a, shall we say, unsophisticated mood to properly enjoy the product. I've eased up off of 'em in my old age, but I may just have to go back and revisit 'em with this dvd release.

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