Warlords of the 21st Century

I don’t put forth much effort to hide the fact that I love genre films. I do this for several reasons, though primarily it is simply to weed out those who do not like them. I have no problem personally if someone doesn’t enjoy them, far too frequently genre films rarely attempt to cross over and gain new fans, but if someone doesn’t like genre fare I immediately know whether or not we will have somewhat comparable taste in movies. Genre films are the anchor in which all of my film interests are held together by, and I am rather proud of that.

Now my particular kryptonite of which I am powerless to resist are science fiction films. While Star Wars is probably primarily to blame, their certainly were plenty of other science fiction franchises indoctrinating my toddler brain. Since that time, if your film had a hint of futuristic technology, machines dealing with their own developing Artificial Intelligence, or even alien populated cantina bands I have probably already watched the film at one point or another.

Being a child of the 1980’s meant I was able to gorge on these types of films on a weekly basis, as the only genre seemingly more numerous was the one involving one or both of the two Coreys. But as I watched these movies, it became increasingly easy to forget just which movies I had watched as I rocketed through the genre. And all too often, I would watch a film I loved and then lose it to antiquity because I wasn’t making any effort to record which films I loved and which I didn’t.

This is the tale of one such relic, lost to the celluloid aisles, seemingly, forevermore.

The Third World War has devastated the Middle East, causing all of their oil to be destroyed. The resulting panic cripples the economies of the world as the price of gasoline surges to $60 a liter (that’s somewhere near $200 a gallon for those of you in the States). Soon black market trading results in gangs ruling the countryside, roaming about bullying anyone who happens to cross their path. One gang in particular stands out, as their leader has found the resources to retrofit a semi-truck, making it a veritable fortress on wheels, or as the alternate title for the film suggests, a Battletruck. And with the police and the government powerless to contain Striker (James Wainwright) and his band of rogues, can anyone stand up to him and bring his reign of terror to an end?

I’m not sure the youth of today truly grasp what a glorious marvel the Internet is. I myself wasn’t exposed to it until September of 1994. That is when I headed off to college at the University of Minnesota. It was there that I received an email address upon enrolling, which I could access by going to any computer lab on campus and log on to the World Wide Web through a text based program called Gopher. You see, back in the stone age of the early nineties, the Internet was primarily text based. Storage space and processor power was still rather limited, and so few sites had many images, let alone video, to make for a more interactive experience. Then when you take into account that most people paid to access the Internet based on how many minutes they used (similar to cell phones) and you would curse any site that embedded more then an image or two as the amount of time it took to load the site was costing you precious time. All of this changed of course quite rapidly, as by the time I left school four years later text based sites were already considered relics of a bygone era.

I still remember when Google was launched to little fanfare. But for those of us who were frustrated with lackluster search engines like Lycos or Alta Vista, we were excited by the possibilities of the search engine that was just a search engine. Soon enough sites like IMDb began to emerge as well, and with just those two web sites suddenly finding movies to watch no longer became such a chore.

There are countless films from my childhood that I will never see again. Not because I didn’t like them, or because they aren’t available on DVD, but because I have absolutely no idea what the movie was called. Nowadays, not knowing a film’s title doesn’t pose anywhere near the roadblock as it would have in the past. Thanks to the wonders of Google all you need do is string together a few passably accurate descriptors of the film and you are bound to find the path that leads to your coveted film. But back in the dark ages, before the New Republic, if you didn’t know the titles of a lesser known genre film you were plum out of luck. You had to rely on sheer blind chance that you would stumble across the film at a local video store, and if it took too long to figure out what the film was, you risk forgetting about it entirely.

For better or worse, Warlords of the 21st Century is a film that simply refused to depart from my memory. I have no idea when I first watched it, nor how I did, though I can safely assume that it was probably a Sunday afternoon television matinee. All I had to go on was a fleeting memory of a man on an armored motorcycle battling an armored semi-truck.

For years I searched for this elusive film. Every time I encountered a cinephile of a particular bent or a science fiction fan I would query them on if they knew the nature of my memory. Summing it up as best I could as Mad Max meets Convoy, again and again I failed to discover the answer I was searching for. Then one day the Internet appeared and my quest began to take on a renewed sense of vigor.

I’m often asked how I find the movies that I review here. The long answer is I have a few select books that specialize in lesser known films, and those coupled with plenty of friends who let me know when they find a rare or unknown gem lead to me having a solid backlog of films from which to choose. But much of it comes down to luck.

It was several years ago when I finally figured out the film that I was searching for was Warlords of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, the film could only be found on VHS, and copies of it were incredibly hard to track down, and expensive to boot. So even though I now knew the name of my prey, I had no means of acquiring it. Ignorance was a better fate then this. So I took my only recourse, I bookmarked the film in my browser and waited for the proper time to strike.

After the release of Mad Max in Australia, there was an explosion of post-apocalyptic films that were cheap knock offs, all done in a blatant attempt to cash in on the fervor created by that landmark film. It wasn’t just the big American studios that were trying to get in on the act either, but smaller budget projects that littered the pop culture highway were even more numerous. Oddly enough, Mad Max didn’t fuel similar styled films in Australia, but rather in other countries spanning all over the globe. Yet the most blatantly derivative variation came just a hop, skip and a jump across the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand, where Warlords of the 21st Century was filmed. Though, to be fair, it is more of a shameless rip-off of The Road Warrior then it is of Mad Max.

Take the basic plot, the world’s oil is virtually extinct and armored packs of bullies roam the wasted countryside, stealing gasoline from anyone they can. When a young woman (Annie McEnroe) they are holding escapes from their evil clutches, she is rescued by a roguish anti-hero (Michael Beck); a man who hates people almost as much as he hates his own life. To protect the girl from the gang and her carnal desires for him, our intrepid anti-hero drops her off at a walled compound, where he assumes she will be safe. But the gang soon discovers her whereabouts and attempt to lay siege to the compound. But now, they will have to deal with our hero.

Toss in a hockey mask and a homemade helicopter and you have The Road Warrior. I’m honestly surprised that the main character isn’t named Max. Though, to be fair, I have no idea what his name is. Probably Mack. (Ed note – It’s Hunter) But Warlords of the 21st Century doesn’t merely steal the basic plot of The Road Warrior, but they blatantly steal camera shots and techniques as well. Only, George Miller is an incredibly talented director. Harley Cokliss? Not so much. Though to be fair I have not yet watched Glitterball, so I guess the jury is still out on Mr Cokliss … for now.

It isn’t even a matter of talent so much as nothing in Warlords of the 21st Century is shot at the speeds they were in Mad Max and The Road Warrior. What makes those films such a thrilling visceral experience is that they were shot at incredibly dangerous speeds. You had cameramen hanging on for dear life on the back of motorcycles as they top 130 mph. Cameras strapped to front bumpers as they rocket towards the oncoming cast. Steadicams bolted onto hubcaps and the cars race around turns and so on and so forth. Those movies took enormous risks so they could provide an entirely new style of visual film making.

Warlords of the 21st Century doesn’t have any of that. In the closest the film has to a standout sequence, a car full of gang members is on the far horizon chasing our heroine. As she runs towards the camera, the car quickly gains ground on her. Filmed in a single long take, it ends up being a relatively nice sequence for such a hastily put together production. But the problem is the shot pales in comparison to the source material it is cribbing from. It is easy to envision having the car come flying towards the camera at some ridiculous speed while simultaneously employing a crash zoom to heighten the effect, catapulting the viewer straight into the oncoming maelstrom. Warlords of the 21st Century has none of that visual flair or self-awareness, instead, relying on rather workmanlike production values for each scene, leaving the entire film feeling quite flat.

That commitment to competency, rather then a go for broke mentality, is the biggest fault of the film. Fantasy and science fiction operate best when they lay everything on the line, and attempt to push the viewer into realms they have never entered before, whether it be visually, stylistically or by its narrative. True, big ideas and high concepts often are the more critically acclaimed films, but time and again I find myself drawn to those films that have a passion for the genre seeping out of every frame. Such devotion and seemingly reckless abandon can elevate minor material into eye popping, crowd pleasing works of joy. They celebrate the medium in a way that high minded fare simply never can, which is why I continually fall back on watching them as a sort of cinematic safety blanket.

It was an exciting day for me when I finally tracked down a copy of Warlords of the 21st Century. Not because I was expecting to revisit some great piece of cinema, or that I was proud in having tracked down some uber-rare film. I simply was excited at having a chance to revisit my childhood. Warlords of the 21st Century is a flawed film, perhaps deeply so. For most it won’t be worth the time or the effort to track it down and watch something they have no attachment to. But for me, revisiting a time and a place I hold in such high regard was bound to be an enjoyable experience, even if the film is something far less then good. My quest wasn’t about finding the film, but about finding my childhood. And in that, Warlords of the 21st Century vastly exceeded any and all of my expectations.