The Cannon Group: the most disreputable duo in cinema?

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

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.