Code Red // 1986 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // November 6th, 2009
"This corporation does not need a physicist screaming 'illegal dump site.'"
When I read that Choke Canyon is about a "cowboy physicist" trying to do something with sound and energy, I immediately asked my brother, a physics major, to watch the movie with me. Together, we discovered two layers of awfulness: one that rests on the film's flimsy execution, and another that resides in the movie's "scientific" theories.
The wind whips through Choke Canyon at such an alarming rate, that the sound is almost deafening. Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins, 7th Heaven), is a physicist living in the canyon, trying to perfect a scientific theory that will allow him to draw energy from the sound waves.
His plans get stalled, however, when Pilgrim, a cold, ruthless nuclear power company, tries to take over his land. They need the canyon to store a giant steel ball filled with nuclear waste, but David isn't about to give up his experiment. After Pilgrim's thugs trash David's laboratory, he sets out on a revenge mission to chase the dirty polluters off his land.
Choke Canyon is an outrageously bad film that, despite everything working against it, manages to be enjoyable on some lowly, ironic level. It falls somewhere around the quality of an off-episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, meaning that it's infinitely watchable in the right frame of mind. It also begs to be given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 send-up.
It's never a good sign when a film's opening credits have a different title than what's on the box. Apparently the UK version of the film is called "On Deadly Ground." The title "Choke Canyon" is way better, of course. Then you're treated to some exposition about how Dr. David Lowell is trying to milk clean, renewable energy from sound waves. My physics-major brother shakes his head. Dr. Dave has some big plans for an experiment involving the passing of Halley's comet, which will supposedly mess up the gravitational pull of the Earth, enhancing the wind that will produce sound in Choke Canyon. My physics-major brother tries to stifle his laughter.
I was ready to accept whatever "Hollywood science" this film was going to throw at me, so long as the action in the film lived up to the DVD's outrageous cover art. The cover features a leather-jacket clad MacGyver look-alike holding a machine gun; two Bronco trucks, engulfed in flames, soaring to their doom; a brunette with a short skirt holding a shotgun; Bo Svenson (Walking Tall) brandishing a really big gun with awkward foreshortening; and a helicopter dragging a glowing black ball. If this were a paperback novel sitting on a bookshelf, I'd read it in a day. Instead, it's a crappy film with awful direction and a goofy story.
The main problem with the movie is that Dr. David Lowell is completely unlikeable. You feel sorry for the guy, and his horse Jake, when his lab is demolished by two Ford Broncos and some hand grenades. Then, when he enacts revenge by tying the two Broncos together using their tow cables, causing them to plummet off a cliff and explode, you have to think "maybe that was a little excessive, doc." It's only when he goes on a terroristic raid on the newly established Pilgrim camp, kidnaps the CEO's daughter (Janet Julian, Swamp Thing), and takes Polaroids of his new hostage, that you begin to think this guy might just be crazy. Oh yeah, and he wants to get energy from sound.
Choke Canyon is filled with some hammy acting and questionable directing, but it's not short on stunts. In fact, the last twenty minutes of the movie involve a superbly excessive helicopter/stuntplane chase sequence. Dr. Dave steals the nuclear waste ball and proceeds to fly the thing out of Choke Canyon. A mercenary played by Svenson chases after him in a circus plane, leading to lots of goofy maneuvers and a couple sweet aerial deaths. In the end, however, this chopper chase isn't enough to save the film from being mid-80s anti-nuclear energy hokum filled with (my brother assures me) bunk science. Those explosions are sweet, though.
Making matters even worse, Choke Canyon has one of the worst transfers I've seen in some time. The packaging boasts a brand new transfer from the camera negatives, but it's riddled with dirt, scratches, and color fading. This isn't an issue of the DVD video so much as a really messed up film negative. The thing looks like it was shot on Super 8mm -- although I should note that Dante Spinotti's (L.A. Confidential) cinematography is pretty striking. The sound isn't any better with, at times, barely inaudible dialogue and a too-loud synth soundtrack. The movie only has an English stereo track, and the whole thing is mixed unevenly, causing me to man the volume button the entire film.
The special features are welcomed, but provide little insight into the film. The commentary track with producer Peter Shepherd, moderated by a fellow from Code Red, is filled with inside information about Italian filmmaking, and how many of the actors came to be involved with the film. Only rarely does it offer any insight as to what's actually happening on screen, and becomes fairly tedious after a while. The interview with Bo Svenson is even stranger and more off base. Questions are super-imposed on the screen (including the classic: "Why did Warner Bros. rejected the film?"), and Bo cracks wise about each one. It's a 10-minute interview and you learn just about nothing. Lastly, there's a cool trailer for the movie that is exciting enough to probably convince any friend to watch this with you.
Choke Canyon is a cautionary tale about phony energy production and the faithfulness of a man's horse. Or maybe it's a cautionary tale about having easily accessible tow cables when there's a vengeful physicist afoot. Perhaps it's just a cautionary tale about how cool explosions and aerial stunts can fix even the worst movie. I don't know.
The film isn't really that good, but if you are looking for a so-bad-it's-fun movie, this may hit the spot. Plus, if you're a physics major, this offers up another use for your degree once you graduate.
On guilty ground.
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Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #93
Studio: Code Red
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG