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Hipster Holy Grail: T-Force (1994)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

T-Force is one of my favorite subgenres of bad movie: the kind where you're not sure if it's actually bad or not.  It delivers on its premise in classic B-movie fashion, simultaneously feeling cheap and well-budgeted.  The action scenes make up for a lack of innovation with sheer quantity, plus a bounty of fireballs and explosions.  Nonsense be damned, I had more fun watching this than some Marvel movies.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Not Actually Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Before getting to the plot, let me tell you how T-Force opens, as it's quite telling.  One by one, we see the four members of the titular Termination Force - all of whom are human-like robots ("cybernauts") with enormous guns and chintzy full-body armor suits - stand in front of the camera and strike a Badass Pose.  Then the music swells and we get a shot of all four cybernauts standing in a line, still coolly holding their poses as a huge explosion goes off behind them.  Then the title slams against the screen with one of those metallic THWUNK sounds, and the opening credits are allowed to continue.

Short of maybe three additional details, this is about all you really need to know about the T-Force.  There are four members, all of whom are pretty interchangeable when the movie starts:

1) Adam (Evan Lurie) - He's sort of the de facto leader of the T-Force.

2) Zeus (Deron McBee, star of previous HHG review Time Barbarians) - He's a vaguely surfer-dude-ish robot.

3) Mandragora (Jennifer MacDonald) - She's a girl robot.

4) Cain (Bobby Johnston) - He's the good robot.

T-Force takes place in a world where cybernauts are ubiquitous and created for just about every purpose imaginable.  The T-Force was invented to support the police - basically, they're brought out in situations where a SWAT team would be too light a touch.  What sets the T-Force apart from other cybernauts, such as the various sex-bots and stripper-bots we later see, is that the T-Force are the most human-like of all.  They each have an "independence chip" that allows them to learn and develop their own, specific interpretation of how to respond to situations and orders they are given.

Unfortunately for the T-Force, many humans distrust cybernauts, and our main character, Jack Floyd (Jack Scalia), is no exception.  Jack is a lieutenant with the LAPD who resents the T-Force for taking work away from flesh-and-blood cops.  Later we'll learn that his father was a mechanic who likewise wound up unemployed when a car-bot took over his job.

When the movie finally starts to get underway, we pick up with Jack and the T-Force as they independently arrive at the scene of a hostage situation.  A couple dozen terrorists have taken over a high-rise office building and are holding workers at gunpoint on various levels above.  T-Force takes a shocking amount of time building up the terrorists' attack, aping a lot of Die Hard along the way.  (To the point that the lead terrorist is dressed like and has his hair / beard cut very similarly to Hans Gruber.) You'd almost expect from this build-up that the movie is going to take place entirely within the skyscraper.

But, no.  Really this is just a chance for us to get Die Hard With Robots for about five minutes as the T-Force fights their way inside and shoots down wave after wave of terrorist, killing them like they were taking Raid to a swarm of flies.  While the T-Force does their thing, Jack freaks out over their recklessness and worries that the hostages are going to get killed.

Turns out he's right to worry - along the way, Adam and Cain have a couple of standoffish moments where they each interpret the threat differently.  Adam is under the impression that the T-Force was ordered to kill all the terrorists at any cost, and so he just plows through them without a second though.  Cain suspects that maybe they're supposed to, y'know, give a shit about human life, so he shoots around the hostages instead.

It becomes clear that Adam is about to endanger a dozen or so hostages on one of the top floors, who are under threat of a giant bomb.  Jack fights his way up the tower to intervene and meets with Cain along the way.  The two of them work together to get as many hostages as possible to safety, and then Adam wraps up the slaughter by shooting a missile launcher into the lead terrorist's helicopter.  Case closed!

Cut to the mayor's office.  Mayor Pendleton (Erin Gray) is none too pleased about how the T-Force handled their mission.  I didn't hear a body count, but I think it's something like 10,000 terrorists and 34 hostages.  Aside from being a tragedy, it's also quite the PR disaster, so Pendleton orders the immediate termination of the T-Force program.

(Side note - I'm kinda shocked that the cops in T-Force take Pendleton's side on this.  I feel like the politics of our country right now are such that a lot of people would sneer and go, "Huh, 34's not too bad.")

Dr. Gant (Martin E. Brooks), the T-Force's creator / designer / surrogate father, argues with Pendleton.  He explains that his babies are still somewhat young, intellectually speaking, and that more time is needed for them to perfect their knowledge of basic concepts like, "Don't kill hostages." Pendleton isn't having it, though, so Dr. Gant is forced to go back to his lab to deliver the bad news.

Now, see, this right here - this is his mistake.  Instead of just telling the T-Force, "Hey, guys, I need you all to power down for a few minutes while we install some hardware upgrades," and then disabling them quietly, he comes straight out and tells them, "We have to melt you guys down.  Sorry."  And I'm not exaggerating - Adam literally turns to Gant and says, "Does this mean you are going to kill us?" and Gant says, "Yes."

So, Adam thinks about this and says, "You're giving us conflicting orders.  Our prime directive is self-preservation. Therefore, we must kill you to defend ourselves.  And since the order to kill us is coming from authority, the authorities must be corrupt, therefore we need to kill them, too."  And then Cain debates with him and says, "No, our prime directive is to obey authority.  We must submit."  And so the T-Force gets into an argument right in front of Dr. Gant about whether or not they need to murder him and go about a city-wide rampage.

It soon becomes a three-to-one vote in favor of a robot uprising, with Cain acting as the sole voice of dissent.  Cain sits there and watches, curiously, as the rest of the T-Force kills Dr. Gant, then proceeds to shoot their way out of the lab and escape.

I'd like to think that Dr. Gant's last thought before his neck was snapped was probably something like, "Wow, I really fucked up that code."  I mean, what kind of bullshit programming is this?  Seems like it shouldn't be too hard to make the "Listen to your human masters" code override the "Kill everyone" code.

Anyway, now we have a plot.  The T-Force is loose on the streets with a mission to kill the police and the mayor, and Jack is summoned to help bring them in.

Here's where the movie kinda stumbles a bit.  Right now we're at about 30 minutes in, and it's pretty obvious that Jack and Cain are going to have to team up to take down the T-Force.  And the movie has done a pretty decent job setting up a buddy cop premise  - Jack is a loner who hates robots, Cain is a robot who likes humans.  Perfect.  But they don't actually get to the buddy cop part of the movie until about 50 minutes in.

So what do we do for the intervening 20 minutes?  Mainly we just walk in circles.  Jack tries to work the case by himself and keeps getting frustrated, he makes fun of Cain for being a dumbass (which, to be fair, he kinda is, but I blame Dr. Gant for that more than anybody), and he goes to a bar to chug whiskey and make fun of all the robot women who work there.  And while that's happening, the T-Force goes about hilariously killing random folks, stockpiling weapons, and setting up a hideout in an  apocalyptic-wasteland-like junkyard.

None of this stuff is bad, but it does present a pacing issue.  There's this odd chunk of the movie where you're like, "Okay, I know what you're about to do... now just do it already."  It's hard not to feel impatient, even though Jack and the T-Force's antics are fun to watch.

Anyway.  Eventually, Cain is assigned as Jack's new partner, and they go off to track down the rogue cybernauts.

This is where T-Force has a chance to shine.  The actors playing Jack and Cain have enough chemistry to pull off an effective buddy pairing, and the filmmakers were smart enough to rip off the best parts of Lethal Weapon and Alien Nation to keep the movie interesting.  We get a few scenes of the two working the case together, including a sequence where Cain uses his robot senses to uncover tiny details about a robbery at a gun store and Jack uses his human senses to browbeat and interrogate the store owner.  With their powers combined, they learn that the T-Force stole some nitroglycerin and red food coloring, among other things.

There's also a decent scene somewhere around here where Jack gets drunk and bonds with Cain over the car he's been quietly repairing and restoring, and Cain surreptitiously fixes it when Jack passes out in a drunk stupor.  Nothing plot-worthy, but it's some good buddy-copping and I appreciate it.

There's also a cutaway scene where we see Mandragora looking at a porn magazine she found along the way and asking Adam what the people in it are doing.  He says, "I think they are procreating," and then Mandragora asks if they're able to do that, too.  So they experiment a bit while sexy saxophone music plays.  The scene is obviously here for some gratuitous tits, but I really, really wanted them to play this for laughs - it would be great if the next cut was to Mandragora riding on Adam's back and going, "I don't understand the appeal."

But enough flavor scenes - time to get back to the plot.  We wind up on a yacht where Mayor Pendleton is gearing up for a press conference.  She doesn't trust Cain and she and her bodyguards have a terse moment around him, but Jack comes to his aid and makes a big show about defending him.  Then they patrol the yacht, suspecting the T-Force is bound to show up... which they do within minutes.

Mandragora, disguised as waitstaff, brings an ice bucket with some wine in it for Pendleton.  Cain notices her and quickly deduces that it's not actually wine, but rather that nitroglycerin from earlier, dyed red.  He intercepts the bottle before anybody can do anything with it, then throws it off the ship and it blows up.

Jack and Cain fight the T-Force a little bit and repel them.  As the T-Force flees, Jack shoots out a crane that's holding up a large crate, and it crushes Mandragora.  Adam and Zeus get away, and Mandragora's body is brought back to the cybernaut lab for further analysis.

Back in the lab, Cain pulls out a yellow/green thing from Mandragora's head, ostensibly her brain, and plugs it into another box-like device.  The device turns Mandragora's brain back on, so she's able to think and talk with Cain, but can't do anything else.  Cain interrogates her a bit and based on that, he and Jack are able to figure out where the T-Force's hideout is.  Before Cain unplugs Mandragora's brain, she says something like, "It's dark and cold here, Cain.  I don't like it."

This gives Cain some misgivings, as he's aware that the police intend to deactivate him once the rest of the T-Force is destroyed.  Cain asks Jack if there's any way to get around that, and Jack, wracked by his newfound conscience and friendship, can't give a good answer.  They reluctantly head off for a final showdown with the remaining cybernauts.

This takes us to that apocalypse junkyard, where there's plenty more explosions and gunfights to go around.  The actual specifics of the ensuing fight are kind of arbitrary and can't come across effectively in a plot recap, but suffice to say that it's fun to watch.  There's a dune buggy chase that ends with Zeus getting pinned down in a wreck, and he flips off Jack just before Jack lights the buggy on fire and flips him off right back.  Also, a whole van full of deadmeat cops shows up for no reason except to give Adam and Zeus some people to kill.

Long story short, Zeus dies, and then Adam zaps Cain with a robot weapon and escapes.  Jack comes to Cain's side just in time to see him die and realizes that Cain is fully cognizant of his own robot mortality.

This gives T-Force the setup for a much more lowkey ending than I expected.  Instead of wrapping things up in that junkyard with a big, giant battle, the movie cuts to Pendleton's office later that night.  Adam sneaks in and tries a last-ditch effort to kill Pendleton, but then Jack arrives and holds a gun to his head, demanding that he surrender peacefully.  Adam refuses, and Jack reluctantly kills him, then goes home to drink away his guilt.

In the last scene of the movie, we see that Jack has stolen that brain-activation device from the cybernaut lab, along with Cain's brain.  He plugs Cain in and starts chatting with him, and then they play blackjack (or rather, Jack plays blackjack and describes it to Cain), and the credits roll.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

T-Force does a lot right.  It doesn't waste much time getting to its action scenes, and when it does take detours from the plot, it gives you scenes that meaningfully flesh out its world instead of just coming across as pointless details.  In that respect, it feels a lot like an antidote to last week's Venus Rising, which was practically the exact opposite.

One of the best things about T-Force is how well it builds a mythology around its cybernauts, even though you don't see very much of the world outside the main plot.  There's enough dialogue and cutaway shots to feel their presence, so even though realistically the movie is very small - there's only a half a dozen filming locations - it doesn't feel small until you start picking it apart.  It's the kind of low-budget filmmaking I admire.

I also appreciate that the cybernaut actors all commit to their roles.  It ends up being pretty silly most of the time, but that just makes it work even better.  You end up with that perfect vibe of "we know it's dumb, but we're not going to start winking at you."

So I really don't have very many gripes this week.  I was hoping for a nonsensical B-movie about killer robots, I got a nonsensical B-movie about killer robots.  With plentiful shootouts and explosions to boot.  Anything negative I might have to say is basically just a nitpick and not worth pointing out.

With one exception: The ending is simply bizarre.  I can see what they were trying to do here.  The movie set up a no-win situation for Cain, and Jack wanted to help "free" him against the city's wishes.  That's a logical way to end your buddy movie and it brings a good sense of closure for their arcs, so, sure.  Let's go with the cute and fuzzy ending.

But the specific way they go about it is to have Jack boot up Cain's brain in a weird little box in his living room.  That's not cute and fuzzy.  It's creepy and disturbing.  Cain is a lost mind wandering in a void, doomed to play games with a drunk lout who's processing his guilt over his past robot bigotry.  That's the setup to a horror movie.  The score, somber and tumultuous, seems to agree with me.

I don't understand why they went this direction.  If you wanted a happy ending, there's not much you'd have to do - just insert some dialogue in that scene in the lab where Cain is holding Mandragora's brain.  He just has to tell Jack something like, "All cybernauts have the same hardware.  This brain is the only thing that makes us each different."  And then you show us a low-functioning robot that has no true personality, and later you see Jack plug Cain's brain into that robot.  If you were worried about the budget, you could even cast Bobby Johnston as the low-functioning robot, too.  Another throwaway line: "Look, this waiter-bot was made from the same model as me.  Looks like its brain was damaged and they took it offline."  Simple.

But if that's too happy, so be it.  Go ahead and end with Cain being dead, and you see Jack talk to another cybernaut with a little more respect.  Or have Jack reboot Cain's brain, but instead of playing weird kidnapper games with him, Jack just wants to say goodbye and Cain accepts his death as a natural consequence of life.  Or do literally anything else.

The more I think about it, the more skeeved out I get.  Here I was having this wonderful time watching a dumb action movie about haywire robots, and the ending we get is distilled desperation and loneliness.  Way to bring the mood down, bro.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It does technically qualify for some obscurity cred since it has under 500 ratings on IMDb, but only just barely.  Let's say 10 points for that, plus another 10 point pedigree bonus for being a PM Entertainment Group production from the director of Cyber Tracker.  I'll give it another 10 point ensemble bonus for its cast, which is made up primarily of B-movie and/or softcore favorites.

I'll give it another 10 point bonus for its title.  Not only is "T-Force" hipstery, they also say it like two dozen times, so that helps if you're trying to approach the movie with an ironic viewing.  I'll top it all off with one more 10 point bonus for the overall content.  "Buddy cops vs killer robots" has hipster written all over it.

Despite all that, it only adds up to a mere 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  The problem with viewing T-Force as a hipster movie is that it's not as lowkey or obscure as you want it to be.  If you're trying to win a hipster contest and you mention this one, you'd look like you have cred to all the folks who normally don't watch B-movies.  But then some other asshole hipster will be like, "Hmm, a Richard Pepin fan, how gauche."

So, enjoy this one as an entry-level hipster movie if that's what you're going for.  Or just forget about that and enjoy it because it's about buddy cops taking out killer robots.

Where You Can Watch

T-Force made its way to DVD, and copies are readily available.  I rented one from Netflix, and it's also available on Youtube at the moment.