Danny Bilson

Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


The Rocketeer: Cliff’s New York Adventure (1988-95)

skitched-20100327-233709.jpgCliff’s New York Adventure doesn’t feature any New York landmarks. No Rocketeer at the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty. There’s a neat guest appearance by the Shadow (Stevens does a great job of dodging copyright infringement). It’s got a lot going on–there’s the resolution of the first story’s cliffhanger as Cliff confronts Betty on her way to Europe (she doesn’t have a very big role this time, though Stevens does have some wonderful panels with her).

Stevens’s writing is … well, he has the same annoying dialect in parts but not overall. Unfortunately, he kind of misses the boat on what he’s actually writing here.

See, it’s all about the past coming back and he doesn’t realize he’s created a heartbreaking story. He wouldn’t have had to change the plot (which is action-packed), but there’s such a clear lack of realization, it feels like the story just can’t fully work. The end, which doesn’t even feature the protagonist, attests this problem.

Stevens unintentionally reveals Cliff as shallow and callous. There’s plenty of opportunity to redeem him, but since Stevens apparently didn’t realize what he’d done, he doesn’t do it.

I loathe these stories, where something clearly unintended hangs me up and clouds the entire work for me. It’s difficult because there’s a lot to like about it (though it’s nowhere near as strong as the first Rocketeer adventure, the supporting cast is just too weak).

Maybe if Stevens didn’t draw so well, I wouldn’t be so effected.

CREDITS

Writers, Dave Stevens, Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson; pencillers, Stevens, Michael Kaluta, Art Adams and Sandy Plunkett; inker, Stevens; colorists, Henry Mayo, Stevens and Isabelle Rabarot; letterer, Carrie Spiegle; editors, Diana Schutz and Bob Schreck; publisher, Comico Comics and Dark Horse Comics.

Trancers (1985, Charles Band)

There’s something real strange about Trancers. It’s not the film’s obvious references to early 1980s sci-fi successes, Blade Runner and The Terminator (cop travels back in time to fight zombie bad guys who look like regular people). It’s certainly not the direction–while Trancers is incredibly low budget, $400,000 still was a few bucks in 1985, certainly enough for this story, which doesn’t need its future scenes. No, what’s strange about Trancers is its love story, between future cop Tim Thomerson and local girl Helen Hunt. It’s real good. The scenes between Hunt and Thomerson, though poorly written, are great.

I used to be a huge Helen Hunt fan, until she became a big movie star, then I noticed she was good when she didn’t have a kid. But in Trancers, she’s appealing, with a great acting sense. She’s around twenty-two in this film, but it’s a reasoned, mature performance. Thomerson is also good, but his acting is a completely different style. I saw Trancers initially, years ago, because Leonard Maltin gave it two and a half or something and based the rating on Thomerson’s comedic performance. Thomerson’s got a tough guy self-awareness in Trancers. The opening of the film–the future–is very film noir. The costumes, the dialogue. But, first it’s in a future cafe, so it shouldn’t really work, and then it’s on a sunny beach, so it shouldn’t work either… but it does. The absurdity of it works. But the scenes with Thomerson and Hunt, you get to watch these two vastly different acting styles, which ought to conflict, seamlessly connect. You enjoy seeing these two people act together.

Another bonus to Trancers (but not one significant enough to save it if not for the acting, which I also need to include Biff Manard in, he’s good) is the economical storytelling. It runs seventy-six minutes and, while the first act with all the future stuff is too long, the second and third acts are real well-paced. Actually, given its writers, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo are TV guys, it’s not surprising the second and third acts actually feel like a TV show plugged on to the end of (bad) feature’s first act. The writing’s not good, but the movie moves and it’s not bad enough to hinder the performances.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Charles Band; written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder; production designer, Jeff Staggs; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Helen Hunt (Leena), Michael Stefani (Whistler), Art LaFleur (McNulty), Telma Hopkins (Engineer Ruthie Raines), Richard Herd (Chairman Spencer), Anne Seymour (Chairman Ashe), Miguel Fernandes (Officer Lopez) and Biff Manard (Hap Ashby).


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