Volunteers (1985)

If you are over a certain age, you are likely acquainted with the magic and wonders of the VCR; that clunky, whirring precursor to the DVR, streaming and beyond. It was a godsend.

No longer beholden to the theaters, you could raid your couch for loose change, hit up your neighborhood video store and catch up on all the latest and greatest.

And the blank tapes. The glorious blank tapes. Recordable. Extended play. You could cram three or four movies onto one dainty, shoebox-sized cartridge. If one of your friends had cable television and was feeling generous, you could hand them a blank tape on Friday and by Sunday have added three feature films to your collection.

Not to mention the ability to record a network show and watch it at your leisure. No more having to wait to go to the bathroom, or get snacks. No more commercials. You could come and go as you please and never miss a thing. These were wondrous forms of black magic. It was the dawning of a brave new world.

Good times.

Volunteers was one of those movies for me. Someone taped it for me back in the day when I was a teenager, along with two or three other movies. I must have watched that flick somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.7 million times back in the day. An exaggeration to be sure, but slighter than you may think. There were periods of my adolescence where I watched it daily. Oh, to have that kind of spare time again.

And then, adulthood. Bars and nightclubs and things to do on a Wednesday night. I didn’t watch Volunteers again for some twenty years or more.

The original VHS tape is still somewhere in my garage. I may not have watched it in a couple decades, but I will never let it go. Think Brokeback Mountain, I just can’t quit Volunteers.

Full disclosure, I am a card-carrying member of the Tom Hanks fan club and I’ll gleefully stab anyone who’s not with a fork. I grew up with the man, from Bosom Buddies to Volunteers and Philadelphia. My adolescence and adulthood was timed perfectly to synch with his career.

A few nights back, I finally broke the dry spell. To my surprise I realized I can still recite half of the dialogue from memory. To my horror, I realized how many of the catchphrases and quips I’ve honed over the years came directly from this movie.

Trapped in a tiger trap by a tiger. Thank you John Candy.

Volunteers is not a great movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Nor does it attempt to be. That’s a good thing. It’s just another goofball comedy from the eighties. But greatness is decided in the eye of the beholder. Volunteers will forever be a five star, two thumbs up movie in my eyes.

It was directed by Nicholas Meyer who also directed Star Trek The Wrath of Khan. (And wrote Star Trek The Voyage Home – the best of the lot as far as I’m concerned – a year after Volunteers.) Meyer also wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of all time, the amazing Time After Time (1979). I’m sure I’ll get around to talking about Time After Time here at some point, until then, please see it at your earliest convenience.

Volunteers pairs Tom Hanks and John Candy, a year after Splash. (I’m a fan of both flicks, but I’d argue Volunteers is the better movie.) Volunteers is my second favorite John Candy film behind Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (If you haven’t cried during the subway stop scene then it may be time to check your pulse, your humanity may be in question.)

While we’re at it, let’s throw Gedde Watanabe into the mix as well, and actor I love dearly and recently spent an afternoon reading all about the controversy surrounding his portrayal of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. (Also a great flick.)

There’s even a wrestling connection with Prof. Toru Tanaka – three-time WWWF tag team champion along with Mr. Fuji – as one of the handsy bodyguards of Chung Mee.

Volunteers is also the movie where Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson reconnected and eventually fell in love, marrying three years after its release. That’ll probably a Jeopardy question some day.

Here’s to another twenty years.

Rock & Rule (1983)

The war was over.
The only survivors were street animals: dogs, cats and rats. From them, a new race of mutants evolved.
That was a long time ago…
Mok, a legendary super-rocker, has retired to Ohmtown. There, his computers work at deciphering an ancient code which would unlock a doorway between this world and another dimension.
Obsessed with his dark experiment, Mok himself searches for the last crucial component…
a very special voice.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of my garage are a couple of old paper boxes filled with old VHS tapes. There’s some pretty good stuff in there – content, in the parlance of our times. The Star Wars trilogy in its original form. The Rocky Horror Picture Show cassette that I had to special order and cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 bucks in eighties money – the equivalent to the GNP of a small island nation these days. (For comparison, the Blu-ray of RHPS is currently twelve bucks on Amazon.) I had Purple Rain. Altered States. The Transformers (animated). Some old wrestling tapes. Good stuff all around. Good times.

And then there were the recordable tapes. The extended plays. Three or four movies recorded off TV or cable. Among them is a tape I borrowed from a friend sometime in the late eighties. It’s currently 2021, and I have yet to return the tape. Sorry about that Scott. Get in touch and I’ll send it back. This particular tape contained Rock & Rule, The Kentucky Fried Movie and another flick whose title escapes me.

Now, The Kentucky Fried Movie is a great relic of seventies weirdness and as such would never play today, but the star of the tape is one of 1983’s finest productions, the aforementioned Rock & Rule. Birthed by Nelvana studios, the same company that created the Boba Fett segment in the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), as well as Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears cartoons. Rock & Rule is a bona fide stoner classic.

The animation is crude by today’s standards, but it is glorious. According to Wikipedia, Spin magazine once called Rock & Rule, “the greatest oddball sci-fi musical ever committed to animation cels.” It’s kind of hard to disagree.

The story is fine and dandy, but the primary selling point of Rock & Rule is the music. A duet with Robin Zander and Debbie Harry? Sign me up, buttercup. Lou Reed and Iggy Pop trading off vocals for Mok Swagger, the primary antagonist of the film? You had me at hello. Fun and completely useless trivia: Debbie Harry reworked Angel’s Song from Rock & Rule into Maybe For Sure for her Def, Dumb & Blonde solo album some six years later. Both versions of the song are pretty sweet.

As with nearly all post-apocalyptic films involving anthropomorphic rats and dogs, I strongly recommend you have some edibles on hand before viewing.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase premiered on August 18th, 1976. As I was still a month shy of my fifth birthday, I was hardly considered a member of the target audience. Our paths crossed a number of years later when it eventually made its way to HBO. I still wasn’t old enough to be in the target audience, but there we were.

That I watched it on HBO makes this a pre-divorce flick. If you’re a child of divorce – which an astonishingly large chunk of seventies kids are – you tend to have a bifurcated view of childhood: pre-divorce and post. We had HBO before the divorce. Afterwards we didn’t have squat. I wouldn’t see cable again until my mid-twenties.

I have a lot of affection for this movie. Some of my earliest memories are of staying up late as a kid so I could watch it. Like much of my pre-teen viewing habits, I’m not sure what kind of parents let their kids stay up late and watch Roger Corman flicks, but that’s a story for my psychiatrist. The seventies were a different kind of beast. The lack of supervision was both liberating and appalling.

I would camp out in the basement of our house in east Anchorage, fighting the urge to fall asleep. It was seventies cozy with a pillow and blanket, parked out on the shag in front of a vintage wood-paneled television that held the approximate dimensions of a modern-day Prius. It was an old school Zenith, with both the power and channel knobs broken off so you had to use an old pair of needle-nose pliers to get it to work.

I used to play Pong on that bad boy.


First world problems.

Honesty, I’d pretty much forgotten all about The Great Texas Dynamite Chase a long time ago. All I had were a few vague recollections of two women on a mission to relieve banks of their money and the liberal usage of dynamite. That was it. I didn’t even remember its name.

And then it showed up on one of the streamers a few months back.

Reunited and it felt so good.

I watched it a couple of days later on a lazy Sunday morning while my kids were downstairs playing video games.

I planned for nostalgia, fond memories and innocent recollections of a simpler time. And The Great Texas Dynamite Chase brought back all of those things and more.

So much more.

What I had apparently forgotten about over the years was the amazing quantity of breasts featured throughout the movie. A mammary army, bouncing across the screen to and fro in all of their seventies glory. I was forced to reconsider the roots of my pre-adolescent fascination with this film.

I love the anti-hero. I will forever root for rebels without a cause and cheer on all manner of skullduggery. I always have and I always will. The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is fully-loaded on all fronts. But two plus two still equals four. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that all that rampant nudity probably had something to do with movie’s appeal to my ten-year-old self.

Imagine going back and watching E.T. after a few decades had gone by and realizing you forgot all about that scene with that cocaine-fueled knife fight at the topless bar and you’ll have a general idea of how much this realization threw me off.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is pure seventies cheese and I adore it so. It is a prime example of one of my favorite seventies tropes – the glorious moral bankruptcy of it all. One minute you’re working a shift at the local five and dime, the next you’re on a crime spree with total strangers. The seventies were not a formal affair; morals and sex came casually.

Let your freak flag fly.

“Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies…” – Neil Young

Sid & Nancy (1986)

I first saw Sid & Nancy when I was fifteen years old at the Polar Theater in Anchorage, Alaska. These were the early days of my punk rock journey; a journey that began several months prior when a friend’s older brother turned me on to The Damned by the Plasmatics. An itch I didn’t even know I had was scratched on that day. Soon after, I caught a community radio broadcast out of the Matanuska Valley and heard the Dead Kennedy’s for the very first time. MTV Get Off the Air.

That was it man. I was in. Hook, line and sinker.

April showers bring May flowers and soon I was off to discover The Misfits, The Ramones, 7 Seconds, Social Distortion, Black Flag and, of course, the Sex Pistols. Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my!

In the mid-eighties, punk rock Anchorage was hard to come by. The pre-internet Last Frontier was a world of mail order – sending away for obscure magazines and indie mailing lists, sending out hundreds of self-addressed stamped envelopes in hopes of a reply. To have a punk rock movie delivered straight to the local theater, it was glorious.

I caught the seven o’clock showing of Sid & Nancy that night. I went alone, as I often did in those days. I watched it in a mostly empty theater. (The best kind of theater in my opinion, but I digress.)  It was love at first sight. When I exited the theater a couple of hours later, I found the lobby occupied by every established punk rocker in town. The cool kids. They had all shown up for the nine o’clock show. Foiled!

I’m sure they dug it too, Sid & Nancy is as fine a motion picture as you will ever experience.

Critics are always falling over themselves praising Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Sid Vicious. You’ll get no argument here – the man played a wax statue to perfection in those opening scenes – though oddly enough Oldman himself didn’t particularly care for the role. For my money though, it was Chloe Webb’s portrayal of Nancy Spungen that really shined. By all accounts Nancy was an amazingly disturbed individual. (See also: And I Don’t Want to Live this Life written by her mother, Deborah Spungen.) Disturbed since birth as the song goes. Toss heroin addiction to the mix and you have an emotional whirlwind of Looney Tunes proportions. Chloe nailed it to a T.

Sid & Nancy had way too much influence over my life back in the day.

I foolishly took this movie as an ode to love eternal, the blueprint from which to build my house. And I did, one dysfunctional relationship to another. I was young and naïve, and it took years to shake that. I still say it’s a good love story, despite its most obvious and fatal flaws. But a blueprint it ain’t.

I always hoped that Alex Cox would have his Cronenberg moment, ala The Fly. Something that would just blow people out of the water and let the world know just how great he was. But it never happened.

Sid & Nancy was the first Criterion Collection release I ever purchased. One of my first eBay transactions as well. I’ve got history with this flick. Memories.

And to hell with Gary Oldman if he doesn’t like it.

(Just kidding Mr. Oldman, sir. I loved you as Sirius Black.)