In the 2014 doc about the eccentric rise and fall of the Cannon Group, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, there’s a leg dedicated to the surreal pomp and circumstances of Chuck Norris’ Delta Force. (Happy 30th anniversary, by the way.) It became the point of no return, the beginning of the end for the legendary trash house, this movie about Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris filleting Arabs (or rather cheap American actors in brown face) over an airplane hostage crisis. The film was a hot potato, lacking any perceived political correctness or worldliness in the events being depicted. But Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus thought it would be boffo. A battle cry. A level up for the no-budget studio. Cannon even rolled out the red carpet for a black-tie opening at their new headquarters in 1986. There was just one problem. As Production Designer William Stout bluntly puts it in Electric Boogaloo:
“A black-tie opening for a Chuck Norris movie…”
The film was crap! Total crap! Lowbrow, not too fun, and sort of troll-bait crap! It never had a chance of being perceived as mainstream or of studio “quality.” The film features Robert Forster with a bad Middle Eastern villain accent and has five minutes of Alan Silvestri themes used over and over. And that’s just the stuff that isn’t Chuck Norris’ acting.
Still, long-term lovers of Cannon wouldn’t have it any other way. Cannon was a studio that defined itself by its bumbling excesses and erratic independence. Its existence was haphazard. Their product threadbare at best. The studio couldn’t figure out how to bottle and build on its successes, and while it was able to attract upscale directors, big names, and mild returns, the Golan and Globus calling card became that of obscenity and overkill.
Now, this list was inspired by the 30th anniversary of Delta Force, but then word literally just broke of a Cannon revival. This isn’t a joke. There’s a new Delta Force, a new American Ninja, and even a new Allan Quatermain in the works. So, in the Cannon spirit of chasing trends and news and proudly, shamelessly cashing in on what’s happening in the world, this list is now a work of offbeat enthusiasm for the Cannon comeback. Because you can’t keep a neat piece of crap down. What exactly were the best films from Cannon? Invasion U.S.A? Gas Pump Girls? Revenge of the Ninja? Whoa. Just keep in mind, this is a sliding scale. John Cassavetes and Jean-Claude Van Damme are equal in our eyes. Cannon films were breasts, blood, and bada-booms with the occasional touches of sheer beauty. Campy, cartoony, crazy, and always curious, Cannon films always had one thing in common: they were made with no money. (Well, it all went to paying Stallone anyway, but we’ll get into that.)
And here’s the Cannon canon.
Senior Staff Writer
20. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
When Cannon took over the Superman franchise after the disastrous Superman III (a Richard Pryor vehicle that occasionally featured the Man of Steel), we had no idea what to expect for the fourth installment. Dropping Richard Donner’s high-spirited adventure in favor of a naïve, overbearing focus on nuclear disarmament, The Quest for Peace is as clumsy with its anti-nuke messaging as its filmmaking. This is the kind of film that thought Supe wagging his finger at the world to stop using nukes during a press conference was compelling cinema. Despite that, you just can’t tear your eyes away from the delightful train wreck unfolding before you.
Its biggest crime, more than the goofiness of Nuclear Man or the sleepwalking performances given by Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, is that it just looks like shit. Without the budget to do Superman right, the green-screen effects look about as convincing as a Flash Gordon serial. What’s more, most of the scenes just take place in an empty parking lot somewhere. (Say what you will about Man of Steel, but at least it had an aesthetic.)
To be fair, there’s a certain charm in the astounding terribleness of it all, from Nuclear Man’s fabulous gold-lamé outfit to newcomer Jon Cryer’s try-hard role as Lex Luthor’s skeevy nephew, Lenny Luthor. Still, it makes you yearn for the halcyon days of Richard Donner, when you actually believed a man could fly.
Box Office: $36.7 million domestic gross
In the Canon: “More sluggish than a funeral barge, cheaper than a sale at Kmart, it’s a nerd, it’s a shame, it’s Superman IV.” – Desson Howe, The Washington Post
19. Firewalker (1986)
Firewalker is more nonsense in the shameless, clumsy Cannon pursuit of cashing in on Indiana Jones. More gold! More lost cities! Evil coyotes! One can almost hear Golan’s pitch: “Chuck Norris and Louis Gossett Jr. are treasure hunters. Did I mention Louis Gossett Jr. won an Oscar?? He did!!! This is Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with Romancing the Stone and will win all the Oscars! Give me money!”
Anyway, this low exercise in high adventure involves Norris, Gossett Jr., and Melody Anderson on the quest for treasure in steaming Central American jungles. Along the way, they are accosted by mercenary soldiers, Indians, rebel troops, crazed would-be dictators, and a man who is named Cyclops because he wears a patch over one eye. I’m sure there’s a chemistry-lacking love story between Norris and Anderson, but this is another grocery store rental that I barely remember and was above at age six.
Box Office: $11,834,302 in the US
In the Canon: “Nobody walks on fire in this movie.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
18. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
I’ll say this for Breakin’: It had heart. The first film was an earnest attempt to capture the break-dancing trend that was hitting the inner city in the mid-’80s and does a decent job of giving us amazing dance sequences right along with some surprisingly effective social commentary. Breakin’ 2, however, feels like a dusty, cynical cash-in, with a subtitle that spawned a thousand memes and dad-jokes.
Granted, the dance sequences are as dynamic as ever – though none of their moves holds a candle to Breakin’s Broom Dance – and there’s a so-bad-it’s-good appeal to seeing the kids we grew to love in the first Breakin’ at it again. Even so, there’s a reason we collectively refer to any new, unnecessary sequel as “Electric Boogaloo,” and it’s not just because of the silly name. Somewhere in our collective unconscious, we know how bad this film is whether or not we’ve even seen it. Maybe, in a weird way, that’s what keeps us coming back.
Box Office: $15,101,131 domestic gross
In the Canon: “Electric Boogaloo is not a great movie, but it’s inexhaustible, entertaining, and may turn out to be influential.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
17. King Lear (1987)
Jean-Luc Godard’s loose and loopy interpretation of the Shakespearean tragedy is often overshadowed by its origin story: At the peak of his genuine but slapdash longing for legitimacy, Menahem Golan signed the troublemaking visionary Jean-Luc Godard to a million-dollar deal during a lunch meeting at Cannes in 1985. The contract was on a napkin. The film would be King Lear as reimagined by Godard and his writer/star, Norman Mailer. Mailer quickly departed from the project, but Godard made good on his napkin obligations by releasing this two years later.
It’s a shame that the film’s genesis gets all of the attention, though, because the actual product is almost as fascinating and bizarre. A mix of the Chernobyl-induced post-apocalyptic adventures of William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth, Don Learo (Burgess Meredith) and Cordelia (Molly Ringwald), and whatever else the increasingly cynical Godard felt like including, King Lear is almost as self-reflective as it is self-indulgent. Opening with recorded conversations about the studio’s demands, it also turns Cannon’s infamous upward grasping and intermittent fantasies of becoming a proper art house studio into a work of art – or maybe “art” – in and of itself.
Box Office: $61,821 against an estimated $2 million budget
In the Canon: “This King Lear is a late Godardian practical joke, sometimes spiteful and mean, sometimes very beautiful, sometimes teetering on the edge of coherence and brilliance, often amateurish and, finally, as sad and embarrassing as the spectacle of a great, dignified man wearing a fishbowl over his head to get a laugh.” -Vincent Canby, The New York Times
16. Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986)
Even as a kid, I knew this movie was inept and lousy. Yet, my mom rented it for me from the slim pickings of our neighborhood Albertsons, at my begging plea, countless times. In my heart, I knew it was a cheap Indiana Jones rip-off, but hell, I enjoyed it. If the film was too dumb for a five-year-old, you can bet audiences rejected this failed franchise pretty quickly. Shot back-to-back with King Solomon’s Mines and based on the H. Rider Haggard novels, Lost City traces would-be action hero Richard Chamberlain and his African adventures in the titular city. I can’t recall specific plot points, but even the IMDB plot description is exhausting: “After his brother Robeson disappears without a trace while exploring Africa in search of a legendary ‘white tribe,’ Allan Quatermain decides to follow in his footsteps to learn what became of him. Soon after arriving, he discovers the lost City of Gold, controlled by the evil lord Agon, and mined by his legions of white slaves.”
As evidenced in the excellent Cannon doc Electric Boogaloo, nothing went right, behind or onscreen. Sharon Stone was insanely difficult, exhibiting her first warning signs of diva-driven egomania. The effects, due to constant budget cuts, are shoddy even by Cannon standards. The coup de grâce of the debacle occurred when Golan viewed a rough cut and was thoroughly agitated, as he confused the project with another Cannon misfire, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars.
Box Office: $3,751,699 in the US
In the Canon: “This one’s a sequel to the 1985 King Solomon’s Mines remake of undistinguished memory, with Richard Chamberlain back to pick over the remains of H. Rider Haggard’s immortal pulp hero.” – Chicago Reader
15. Cyborg (1989)
Cyborg embodies the old good/bad conundrum for movie enjoyment.
In the bad corner, Albert Pyun’s Mad Max-meets-Terminator knockoff isn’t just a zero-budget production. No. It’s so poorly conceived and filmed and cast that Cannon should have been giving money back to its viewers just for watching it. Van Damme can hardly act, the violence and effects are embarrassingly grungy, and Cyborg doesn’t have an original bone in its cybernetic body. Also, did I mention Van Damme can’t act for a damn? Cyborg’s got pipe cleaners where there should be wires and working parts.
Yet, Cyborg lives for its self-serious and dirty aesthetic, and um, uhh, non-actor Van Damme presents himself like a leading man, maybe, sort of, and, well, gosh this is so embarrassing to admit … Van Damme just looks really cool when he does his roundhouse kicks in slow motion. Like, he lifts his full body, and over-coverage with multiple cuts and camera angles revel in the Belgian actor’s moves in a way that improves this sci-fi grinder. Cyborg may be cheap-o and a little sleaz-o, but it embodies the B-movie gumption it would never rise above, and it comes out kicking high.
Box Office: $10 million domestic gross
In the Canon: “I am not sure I remember the opening words of Cyborg exactly, but I believe they were, ‘After the plague, things really got bad.’ I do remember laughing heartily at that point, about 30 seconds into the movie.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
14. Lifeforce (1985)
Naked space vampires? What more could you want? Well, director Tobe Hooper and writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (the minds behind Alien) throw all manner of stuff at you in this overstuffed space thriller. The plot is an absolute mess, starting with a space expedition and ending with a religious showdown at St. Paul’s cathedral. There are bits of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in there, along with some mental illness, space opera, and more tossed in for good measure. There are about four different protagonists at any given time, all played by similar-looking white dudes and saying the same things, only serving to confuse matters even further.
Lifeforce feels like Hooper wanted to take a cue from the family-friendly Steven Spielberg, then decided to add some gratuitous breasts in there for the dads. Even after that, they try to class up the bawdiness with some hoary Catholic imagery, elevating Mathilda May’s sultry extra-terrestrial to the level of sainthood. Somewhere in the process of making you think about God and giving you a boner, Lifeforce thought it could do both at the same time.
Box Office: $11.6 million domestic
In the Canon: “…its style is shrill and fragmented enough to turn Lifeforce into hysterical vampire porn.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
13. The Company of Wolves (1984)
Cannon being Cannon, the distributors chose to market this film to US audiences as a horror film. It’s not the worst misrepresentation in cinematic history – the stories within a dream within a film are not without their gory terror – but the true horror in The Company of Wolves leans more toward the existential than the bodily.
Based on a short story by Angela Carter, and co-written by Carter and the film’s director (some young upstart named Neil Jordan), The Company of Wolves uses both the Red Riding Hood fairy tale and werewolf lore to tackle themes of burgeoning female sexuality and predatory older men. Both the special effects and the metaphors feel a little choppy by today’s standards, but it was a haunting and dark look at barely explored subject matter in its time, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival two years before Stephen Sondheim would even touch upon similar notions in the first theatrical production of Into the Woods, and 16 years before horror, lycanthropy, and menarche met their perfect match in Ginger Snaps. It also remains a remarkable glimpse into the early days of a truly skilled filmmaker.
Box Office: After narrowly breaking even on its opening weekend, Wolves earned a domestic gross of just under $4.4 million.
In the Canon: “The Company of Wolves is a dream about werewolves and little girls and deep, dark forests. It is not a children’s film, and it is not an exploitation film; it is a disturbing and stylish attempt to collect some of the nightmares that lie beneath the surface of Little Red Riding Hood.”- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
12. Joe (1970)
Peter Boyle, the cranky, funny old man from Everybody Loves Raymond, was a cranky, not-so-funny, gun-totin’, beer-swillin’, all-American man 30 years prior to that show in John G. Avildsen’s Joe.
After Bill Compton’s (Dennis Patrick) daughter (young Susan Sarandon) overdoses on drugs, he kills her hippie boyfriend in a fit of rage. Today that would be called transference? Anyway, right after the murder, Bill goes to a nearby bar to drink and think about what he’s done and meets a ranting, raving jerk named Joe (Boyle in a daring feat of unrestrained over-acting). Bill confesses his sins to Joe, and Joe wholeheartedly approves. Joe hates hippies and totally gets off on the wealthy Bill’s seeming excludability from prosecution. Odd as this all sounds, it’s the beginning of a beautiful, horrendous friendship of culture clashing and male rage. Losers, guns, and druggies. The film’s dank, dated, and still dangerously effective in its white male burdens and wish fulfillment, and there’s real fire to its rabbling rhetoric. Joe has the distinction of being Cannon’s first real big hit in the US, and it sort of guided Cannon’s interest in topical, violent subject matter in later movies as a hope for commercial success.
Box Office: $19 million on a $106,000 budget. Not bad. Not bad at all.
In the Canon: “Starting with a murder and ending with a massacre, this bleak portrait of America shows a dream turned sour and a country at odds with itself. In the lead role, Peter Boyle embodies the rotten state of the nation.” – Anton Bitel, Film4
11. Runaway Train (1985)
Working from an Akira Kurosawa script, Runaway Train is a crazed action film, frenetic and truly furious. Two men escape from an Alaskan prison by hiding on a train. Immediately, everything goes wrong as the two get trapped on a train barreling out of control after the conductor has a heart attack. Sensational stunts and white-knuckle spectacle ensues, but most surprisingly, Runaway Train is a film about misfits, people with actual depth and pathos, who just happened to be stuck on a bullet train. This isn’t just a train film. This is a dazzling train film with great performances, perfect pace and tension, and surprising nuance. (Richard III quotes in a Cannon film? Get out of here!)
Still, this being a Cannon film, what would this be without some crazed, discerning characteristic? If you haven’t seen Runaway Train, do. The film’s pure momentum and ruefully forgotten. However, be forewarned, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts’ accents are complete gibberish. Seriously, Voight does some sort of blu- collar warble that rides the line between laughable and abstractly amazing. Maybe it’s the gold tooth that’s hard to get past. Meanwhile, Roberts has this motor-mouthed Southern twang thang that he does, and it’s like nails on a chalkboard. For the record, they were both nominated for Oscars for their work in this.
Box Office: $7 million domestic. The 100th best showing that year.
In the Canon: “The surprise is that Konchalovsky has taken such an obviously pat formula (from an original screenplay by Kurosawa) and made it work remarkably well. Somehow one leaves aside the blatant implausibilities, the coincidences, even Eric Roberts, and takes great pleasure in a breakneck ride to the end of the line.” – CPEA, Time Out
10. Breakin’ (1984)
Arguably, Breakin’ 2 now holds a higher place in modern culture, thanks to its incessantly referenced subtitle, Electric Boogaloo, but while the sequel has the makings of a great punchline, the original Breakin’ actually has the makings of a decent film.
It was also a somewhat harmonious marriage of Cannon’s wildly divergent interests in that it both made money and offered an air of credibility for its groundbreakin’ (sorry) subject matter. Loosely based on the 1983 LA hip-hop documentary Breakin’ and Enterin’ and featuring many of the same performers, including a young Ice-T, Breakin’ was the first major motion picture of its kind to give break-dancing such a large platform and take it seriously as a pop culture phenomenon. It’s not exactly a perfect representation. The plot, which focuses on a young, white jazz dancer as a way to help white audiences connect to the material – an unfortunate trope that still exists in films like Save the Last Dance and shows like Orange Is the New Black – is unnecessary. But the dance numbers themselves by pioneers like Adolfo ‘Shabba-Doo’ Quinones and Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers are almost uniformly excellent.
Box Office: $38,682,707 domestic gross
In the Canon: “Breakin’, which opened yesterday at the National and other theaters, features a number of good, mostly small-scale demonstrations of break-dancing, the energetic street choreography that is now in the process of being co-opted and merchandized by big-time show business.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times
09. Cobra (1986)
Did you know that Cobra comes from leftover bad ideas from Sylvester Stallone when he was attached to Beverly Hills Cop? Yeah, before Eddie Murphy turned that action comedy into an all-time hit, Stallone was on board and contributing to that script. Apparently, Sly wanted the character to not be Axel Foley, but Axel Cobretti, “The Motor City Cobra.” Paramount balked and told Stallone to take a hike and take his dopey character name with him.
Cobra’s terribly derivative of the Bronson and Eastwood gunners made before it. Crime must pay, by any means necessary. Meaning, Smith & Wesson must totally miss the ‘80s. A lot of agro dudes do. It’s pornographically violent, written with zero heart and brain, expressed with Stallone’s marble-mouth via megaphone. Crime’s the disease, and Stallone’s Cobra is the cure, the line goes. But Cobra flaunted two things other films of its ilk did not. Drinking on the job. During a hostage situation no less. Cobra crushes a Coors then shoots people. And cutting pizza with scissors. Cobra actually cuts a slice of pizza, nibbles on it, then cleans his gun. Like a jerk.
Good lord, Cobra.
Still, Cobra stands to this day as a product of ‘80s excess and reckless gonzo action for angry justice seekers everywhere, and it is every bit as thrilling as it is guilt-inducing.
Box Office: $49 million domestic on a $25 million budget ($13 of that went to Sly). A top-20 box office hit in its year!
In the Canon: “Mr. Stallone, who was hollow-eyed and innocent as Rocky and hollow-eyed and sincere as Rambo, is hollow-eyed and mean as Cobra.” – Nina Darnton, The New York Times