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Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Big Game

This independent film, one of three produced by Stanley Norman, appears aimed more at the international market than the American. The Big Game (TBG) goes by many other titles. "Todesgrüße von Gamma 03" in Germany. "La macchina della violenza" in Italy, and even three different titles for the english version (though usually with the same four-heads art). In addition to TBG, there was "Control Factor" and "Explosion". TBG is more of a spy-thriller (low on thrills) in which a sci-fi gizmo is the McGuffin. The film stars many familiar actors, such as Stephen Boyd, Ray Milland, Cameron Mitchell and France Nuyen. It is also shot in several locations: Rome, Hong Kong, Capetown, etc.

Quick Plot Synopsis Diplomat, and erstwhile playboy, Jim Handley, finds himself drunk in a Rome nightclub. He wakes up in a hotel room with a woman he doesn't know (France Nuyen). Atanga passionately proclaims her love for him. He takes all this in stride. He gets a phone call and must leave. They go shopping and tour some sights in Rome. Elsewhere, his brother Mark is the guinea pig in a test. He's flying a Lear Jet. A ground radar thingy takes control of his brain. Success. Mr. Handley (Milland) calls off the test. He, inventor Layton van Dyke (Boyd) and his security man Bruno (Mitchell) brief a room full of generals. Their radar thing can override the will power of the human brain. Just think of it's power to bring world peace! (really?) Back in Rome, Jim is told get his father's project cancelled, or his family may die. He resists, but gets beat up. Back at the project, Professor Handley puts on another demonstration for General Stryker. They use the radar to make drivers of a half dozen old cars drive an intricate choreography, then makes them drive demolition derby. Then the radar makes them get out of their cars and fight. Then the radar makes a line of soldier shoot at the cars, thinking they're tanks. (Yes, this proves the unit will be useful for world peace). Meanwhile, Jim flies to Hong Kong where he is followed, threatened some more, and beat up some more. His new girlfriend, Atanga, is brought in as captive. The bad guy's shoot her as a warning. Meanwhile meanwhile, Professor Handley has arranged for his radar gizmo to be loaded aboard a big industrial fishing ship and headed for Capetown. Jim, under duress and drugs, joins the ship. He is also a tool, letting down boarding ladders, so boat loads of ninja types with machine guns can board. The ninjas take over the ship. Some good guys are coming in two orange helicopters. They land aboard and there is much gunfire. It turns out that Atanga was not dead, but one of the bad guys. Surprise! She stabs Jim and he dies. Eventually, she is the last ninja standing so surrenders. When she identifies Layton (the inventor), she hugs him and pulls a grenade ring on her belt. Layton quickly pushes her down a stairway and she just blows up alone. Her (rubber) hand is all that's left, wearing Jim's family ring. Poignancy! Mark wonders if the invention will really bring world peace. Layton says no. Zoom out. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Much about TBG reeks of 70s ethos. The hair, the clothes, the music. Survivors of the 70s might be amused. The mind control radar gizmo is woefully underdeveloped as a plot device, but shares the sci-fi stage with other films like Creature With the Atom Brain. France Nuyen has nice legs.

Cold War Angle
Hadley's radar mind control device is yet another surrogate for nuclear weapons. The creators naively imagine that if one side "has control", it will ensure peace. This would be Pax Romana of course, which is fine if one is Roman, but less fine if non-Roman. There are clearly Two Sides, the have-not side thinking that peace can only be maintained if BOTH have the awesome power. The "haves" disagree, of course. The nuclear deterrent factor, seen in yet another guise.

Based on the Book -- Ralph Anders penned what must be a rather banal and minor spy novel titled "The Two Sides." Anders adapted it to a screenplay, with help from the producer, Stanley Norman, and director Robert Day. At several points, Anders' experience as a novelist (not a screenwriter) is evident. He has the Jim character narrate descriptions or exposition instead of using visuals to tell the story. Sometimes, the prose is flowery and turgid, in a pulp novel sort of way. "Hong Kong: the checkpoint-charlie of the east...the melting pot of races...."

You Call Yourself a Diplomat? -- One of the major weaknesses in the plot of TBG is the character of Jim Handley. This would-be-Bond is supposed to be a professional diplomat, but lets himself get drugged/drunk, then is completely accepting of this and bedding a woman he doesn't know (who obviously slipped him his mickey). This woman he didn't know the day before says she's soooo in love with him and he believes it without question. (?) Then, a total stranger says he'd like to talk to him privately, so what does the careful professional diplomat do? Invite him up to his room -- alone. When the bad guy demands the combination to his briefcase, Jim refuses, until a tall thug slaps him around a little. Then he caves and gives up the combination. His other blunders await viewers fond of spy thrillers. Poor Jim is a weak link.

Mind Control -- The minor sci-fi element in TBG is the radar remote control device. The mumbo-jumbo at the "briefing" really explains nothing. The writers had little sci-fi imagination. ("And here, a miracle occurs...") The device amounts to a sci-fi gizmo to make people into obedient zombies (in the old sense) and do the will of their computer-controlling masters. This is a favorite old trope in sci-fi. The Man From Planet X ('51) had an alien mind-controlling the villagers to repair his ship. Invaders From Mars ('53) had the martians control people with little implants in their necks. Creature With the Atom Brain ('55) had remote-controlled thugs doing the bidding of a master. There are many more, better, films with this trope.

McGuffin, To Go -- The sci-fi part is only a nearly-interchangeble McGuffin. It could have been a rocket fuel formula, or special periscope lens, or even super-nutritious MREs, for that matter -- anything that would have given one side an advantage over the other. It's an excuse to have spies do mean things. Like a classic McGuffin, the radar-mind-control device has no impact on the plot. It's simply something to fight over. The good guys don't use it on the bad guys. The bad guys don't capture it and use it to cause mayhem. Such a wasted opportunity.

Elaan: The Spy -- Fans of Star Trek, TOS, will likely recognize the female star, France Nuyen, as the Dohlman of Elas from the episode, "Elaan of Troyius." In TBG, they get to see her in her real hair (not that braided wig), being all smiles and smooches, and even a few long shots of her in the requisite early 70s micro-skirt. Too bad she turns out to be an enemy spy.

Bottom line? TBG is a mediocre spy "thriller" that comes up short on just about everything. The sci-fi element is potentially intriguing, but never developed. TBG's scant appeal is thanks to the hard work of the Second Unit teams who shot ample atmosphere footage of Rome, Hong Kong and Capetown. Yet, even these have only the limited entertainment value of old National Geographics. Spy movie fans might find something to like. For sci-fi fans, however, TBG is fairly skip-able.

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