Cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus founded the Cannon film company. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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The Cannon Group: the most disreputable duo in cinema?

Looking back at the exploitation enterprise of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus's cinematic output.

The Cannon Group dominated cinema exhibition in Britain in the Eighties. The company, founded and run by the Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, pumped out cheapo exploitation movies at an alarming rate across the genres (sex comedies, martial arts movies, vigilante thrillers, science-fiction, costume drama), and the duo got their hands on a chain of cinemas.

But they also funded the odd respectable endeavour – Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and John Cassavetes’s penultimate film, Love Streams. These high-calibre highpoints are not overlooked in a new documentary about Cannon, but the main focus falls on the more disreputable end of Golan and Globus’s output, as demonstrated by its title – Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Even when the movies weren’t bad, they were often plain bizarre.

One interviewee puts his finger on it, likening a Cannon film to a Frankenstein’s monster of parts that should never have been bolted together. Ninja III: The Domination, about a telephone linewoman who turns into a martial arts killer after being possessed by the spirit of a dead ninja, is a good case in point, mixing as it does elements of Flashdance, The Exorcist and Enter the Dragon.

I am almost ashamed to say that I haven’t seen the film but it has now zoomed to the top of my must-see list. It is joined there by some of the other movies featured in the documentary, such as The Last American Virgin, a US remake of the Israeli sex comedy Lemon Popsicle (which Golan had produced). Including an abortion scene in a sex comedy is bold enough. Intercutting it with footage of a pizza being sliced seems defiantly peculiar.

I also wonder how I have lived this long without seeing Masters of the Universe, the movie version of the He-Man children’s series. Ropey prosthetics, polystyrene sets, crap effects. It looks so wrong it’s right.

Had I not seen it already, Death Wish 3 would also surely be on the list. This is the third instalment of the morally redundant vigilante series, which was shot in south London to keep costs down, despite still being set in New York.

Alex Winter, the Bill & Ted star who played a thug in Death Wish 3, offers some dryly disparaging remarks about the movie, including his priceless memories of seeing its star, Charles Bronson, being ferried from his trailer to the set to do one of his minimalist, low-energy takes. “It was more like watching a man golf than act,” he says.

Mark Hartley, who directed the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood (which was similarly slanted toward the sordid and scandalous side of filmmaking), has assembled a lively collection of clips and interviews that gives the Cannon story definition and shape, without stinting on the gratuitous anecdotes.

The analysis here argues that Cannon got too big for its boots: once it ditched the bargain basement production values, and started trying to match Hollywood dollar for dollar, its days were numbered. Golan wooed Sylvester Stallone with a gargantuan paypacket for the arm-wrestling (arm-wrestling!) drama Over the Top, and launched a fourth Superman film (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) without the imagination or budget to pull it off.

Good ideas, like Breakdance – which was rushed into production in time to capitalise on the breakdancing craze – were overshadowed by poor ones like Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo, which took dancing off the streets and into a series of incongruous, Day-Glo settings. And I should know, since I paid to see it aged 13. Cannon lost sight of its raison d’être.

Hartley’s film sometimes veers into casual misogyny in sections where a bunch of braying male interviewees mock the acting talents or conduct of Sylvia Kristel (who starred in Mata Hari) or Sharon Stone (who appeared early in her career in Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold).

“She was hated on set… All the South Africans hated her… ‘Who is that bitch?’” –this is just a selection of the comments made here about Stone. Kristel, too, is viewed without a shred of gallantry: “She was addicted to cocaine; by the time she reached Budapest, she was hooked on booze.” Is a little compassion too much to ask?

It isn’t that those actors are undeserving of criticism – more that it is framed in a way that feels vindictive, and gender-oriented. No one is lining up to slight the acting talents of the male action stars featured here. Chuck Norris is no Daniel Day-Lewis. Last time I looked, Jean Claude Van Damme had nothing on De Niro.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue