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Plot: diamond is stolen from high-profile target. LETHAL Ladies are on the case.

Andy Sidaris closed the book on the original LETHAL Ladies franchise with Fit to Kill, the conclusion of the three-part Kane storyline and the last of the 5-picture deal that Sidaris brokered after the home video success of Picasso Trigger (1988). Not all episodes were created equal, and some were just plain better than others. The LETHAL Ladies movies never aspired to anything more than fun-loving spy/action romps set in and around Hawaii with a rotating bevy of bosomy belles in candy-colored bikinis and where explosions, shootouts, and an abundance of oversized breasts stood in for trivial things such as inter-episode continuity, ongoing plot, and character development. For a while the series had been losing steam but good old Andy had found a new muse in the interim. The last original LETHAL Ladies chapter Fit to Kill is a glorious throwback to the halcyon days of Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) and Savage Beach (1989).

The franchise always largely served as an excuse to flaunt big guns (both literal and figurative), oversized explosions, and the thinnest veneer of a spy-action plot. Nobody loved beautiful women more than the late Andy Sidaris and what better way to get into their good graces than to promise them stardom? In their six years with the series Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, and Cynthia Brimhall all had become, to lesser or greater extent, superstars in their own little corner of cult cinema. After Hope Marie Carlton bade the series farewell after Savage Beach (1989) it effectively made Dona Speir the de facto series mascot. Years of headlining the LETHAL Ladies had taken their toll on Speir and she was ready to move on. Fit to Kill was the last featuring Speir, Vasquez, and Brimhall and (obviously) new blood and bodies were needed. Sidaris the elder was, for all intents and purposes, ready to retire the series and what was more fit to kill the franchise than the “Andy’s greatest hits” that was Fit to Kill? In the two years that followed Andy’s son Christian Drew took up the mantle and produced the two expanded universe episodes Enemy Gold (1993) and The Dallas Connection (1994) with his Skyhawks Films. Sidaris the younger may not have gloriously risen to the occassion, but he managed to extend the series’ lifespan beyond what was reasonably expected of it. Both Sidaris universes merged in Day of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1998).

To keep its operatives sharp The Agency is organizing war games. After the obligatory swim in the resident pool Donna Hamilton (Dona Speir) and Nicole Justin (Roberta Vasquez) engage Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane, as Michael Shane) and Bruce Christian (Bruce Penhall) in a round of paintball and target practice. Meanwhile at Aladdin Resort & Casino, Martin Kane (Geoffrey Moore, as RJ Moore) is hatching a convoluted plan to bring down federal agent Hamilton, lure his former criminal associate Po (Craig Ng, as Craig Ryan Ng) into the open, and take possession of the vaunted Alexa diamond. At no point does Silk (Carolyn Liu), an Agency informant, find it necessary to relay any of this information. Having failed to produce the Klystron Relay nuclear trigger as ordered, Kane has now fallen out of Po’s and his client’s favor making him fair game for not respecting the criminal code. Po has dispatched statuesque leather-clad hitwoman Blu Steele (Julie Strain) to collect the outstanding debt and the prize on his head.

Back at the The Agency headquarters Lucas (Tony Peck) briefs the agents of their latest objective: the infiltration of a high-society black-tie event wherein philanthropist and entrepreneur Chang (Aki Aleong) will cordially donate the Russian imperial diamond stolen from the Leningrad museum during World War II to a Russian diplomat as an act of restoration. The Agency will monitor the diamond, handle security, and oversee the exchange. It sounds like a simple enough operation. Edy (Cynthia Brimhall) and Lucas commence the necessary preparations, while Donna and Bruce reconoiter the event perimeter for any possible breaches. Nicole busies herself with screening all of the invitees and personnel. Rookie agent Ava (Ava Cadell) will act as a delegate to meet Russian diplomat Mikael Petrov (Rodrigo Obregón, as Rodrigo Obregon) and his aide Gregor (Mark Barriere). Shane Abilene will stay behind at the offices of K SXY radio and familiarize new Agency trainee Sandy (Sandra Wild) with all the necessary procedures, in theory and in practice, before her first field operation. In the confusion at the black-tie party Kane’s tracking necklace is stolen (among other riches) leading Nicole and Bruce on a hurried retrieval mission while being chased by bumbling assassins Evil (Chu Chu Malave) and Kinevil (Richard Cansino). When the true culprit finally reveals himself Donna, Kane, and a few bystanders are abducted. An explosive, bullet-ridden clash between the various factions seems imminent. As the smoke clears and the chaos subsides Donna Hamilton solemny philosophizes that her “work here is done.” Prophetic words, indeed.

A changing of the guards was on the horizon and with the late great Julie Strain the series was given a second lease on life. Strain was a Penthouse Pet (June, 1991), Pet of the Year (1993), muse of Spanish fantasy illustrator Luis Royo, and she who should have been Vampirella. Strain was no stranger to action with roles in Hollywood actioners as Out For Justice (1991) (with Steven Seagal) and Double Impact (1991) (with Jean-Claude Van Damme) next to bit parts in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) and Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). As Speir retired from the series Strain became the new mascot easily eclipsing her equally well-endowed co-stars Shae Marks and Julie K. Smith. The new cast never really gelled and there was no real chemistry between Strain and Marks the way there was between either Speir-Carlton or Speir-Vasquez. It was never for a lack of trying on Julie’s part. She took these roles perhaps far more serious than they deserved.

The only real new face (or body, rather) is Sandra Wild. Wild appeared in Playboy several times over the years, most notably in August 1991 as part of the “California Dreamin’” article. In a rare exception to Sidaris casting traditions Sandra apparently never made it to Playmate but appeared in multiple of their home videos. She also starred in the 1990 Michael Bay directed music video for ‘Up All Night’ from Slaughter. Wild amassed a respectable amount of (mostly uncredited) decorative roles in popular television series as Married with Children (1989), Full House (1989), Columbo (1990), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994), and Walker, Texas Ranger (1995). Not that that translated into something resembling a real acting career. For better or worse, the casting choices here would be an omen for things to come.

Sidaris, senior and junior alike, were about to learn an important lesson: with great boobs comes great responsibility. While there never was any particular shortage of willing and able Playmates to choose from they would never quite find suitable replacements for both Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton or Roberta Vasquez. Christian Drew tried his darndest to find the right duo (you may interpret that any way you want) but none were really able to recreate the chemistry between the original two platinum blondes. Roberta Vasquez really made the role of Nicole Justin (who always was a thinly-veiled proxy-Taryn) her own and Strain was only second to her in becoming a pillar of the series in her own right. All of which speaks to just how iconic Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton were to the series and how dangerously their shadow loomed over whoever was chosen to follow in their collective footprints. For the most part the rule of thumb was that a Playmate’s bust-size was inversely proportional to her line-reading skills (Julie Strain being the exception). The original LETHAL Ladies would be resurrected for two episodes with Day of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1998). No more sequels were produced by either Andy or Christian Drew after 1998. Sidaris the elder himself would pass away in 2007. In the decade-plus since nobody has risen to the task of filling that particular niche. Secretly we’re hoping either Rene Perez or Benjamin Combes will do so, but only time will tell.

Plot: God made him simple. Science made him a god.

The Lawnmower Man is one of those post-The Abyss (1989) special effects extravaganzas that for one reason or another never quite made it to the big time. It was mildly philosophical when it tried and attempted to be cerebral in a time when that quality was very much frowned upon. It very much wanted to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) for the Computer Age but somehow ended up in Albert Pyun territory instead. As subtle as a sledgehammer and about as nuanced as a bulldozer The Lawnmower Man also is needlessly pretentious, a tad on the long side, and jarringly violent when a measure of restraint would have sufficed. In other words, The Lawnmower Man is a relic from the 90s, that bygone era where genres shifted superficially enough to, in the best of days, pass themselves off as something they were not. In one of the prior decades (especially the sixties, seventies, possiby even the eighties) and in the hands of different director The Lawnmower Man could have been a cautionary tale about the dangers of emerging technology or a body horror about digital godhood. Instead it is a techno-thriller too afraid to commit to itself and often a victim of its more exploitative inclinations.

The career of director Brett Leonard is one of odd twists and turns. He was one of the Klown performers on Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) before directing his own zombie movie The Dead Pit (1989). That directly led into Leonard being hired to direct music videos for MC Twist, erstwhile Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, and Billy Idol. For all intents and purposes The Lawnmower Man was his first big project and supposedly his ticket to the Hollywood big time. The Lawnmower Man was based on an original script called Cyber God co-written by him and producer Gimel Everett. It was originally released as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, but title and a few vague references aside, it practically bears no meaningful semblance to King’s 1975 short story of the same name. King, understandably, was none too pleased having his name associated with the production and succesfully sued to have it removed. After The Lawnmower Man Leonard helmed the thriller Hideaway (1995) (with Aerosmith babe Alicia Silverstone) that saw author Dean R. Koontz sueing to have his name removed. Leonard directed the science-fiction feature Virtuosity (1995) (with Denzel Washington) that had the ill fortune of being overshadowed by a little movie called The Matrix (1999) from the Wachowskis. Leonard then directed the IMAX feature T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) before helming Feed (2005), a thriller in the mold of The Silence Of the Lambs (1991) and, more importantly, Se7en (1995) – but only a decade late. To say that Brett Leonard has had a strange career would be putting it very mildly.

Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a benevolent computer scientist employed at Virtual Space Industries where he has developed a revolutionary VR treatment that allows to open the doors of perception and boost intelligence. His research into psychoactive drugs and virtual reality experiments on simians have produced extraordinary results. He has, much to his chagrin and dismay, been contracted by the military through the highly secretive clandestine group The Shop to weaponize his emerging technology with aims of creating the ultimate highly-efficient, disposable infantry soldier in what has been dubbed Project 5. Angelo’s been so consumed by his work that he barely notices that his estranged girlfriend Caroline (Colleen Coffey) is about to pick up and leave. Project director Sebastian Timms (Mark Bringelson) encourages Angelo not to bite the military-industrialist hand that feeds him. The Director (Dean Norris) reminds Timms of the techology’s strategic importance prompting him to swap Angelo’s new formula with the old Project 5 medication. A decision that will have far-reaching consequences as this leads to the escape of Angelo’s most promising test subject, the chimp Roscoe-111. As the chimp flees into the sleepy adjacent town Larry meets intellectually disabled and put-upon Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) - a warden of the state, and laborer for landscaping company Pastoral Greenery – wasting away neglected in a rundown shed near the church. Jobe has an interest in superhero comics and shows an uncanny affinity for mechanics. Angelo realizes that he has at long last found the suitable human test subject to complete his research.

Jobe is constantly at the receiving end of abuse from his supposed legal guardian Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate) and gas station attendant Jake Simpson (John Laughlin). The only one really looking out for his best interests is Francis’ semi-alcoholic gardener brother Terry (Geoffrey Lewis). He has a friend in teenager Peter Parkette (Austin O’Brien), Angelo’s next-door neighbor who often comes over to his laboratory to play with the VR equipment. Peter’s mother Carla (Rosalee Mayeux) is sweet on him, if only to escape her suburban nightmare with abusive husband Harold (Ray Lykins). Platinum blonde poor white trash beauty queen Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) has eyes for Jobe, but (so far) he has been oblivious to her advances. Larry’s treatment on Jobe proves succesful seeing him finally stand up to his abusers and win the affections of Marnie – all while his intellligence continues to boom exponentially. Once the resources in his basement laboratory have been exhausted Angelo moves Jobe into VSI’s spinning aerotrim gyroscope where the software is far more advanced and radical. Soon Jobe becomes too powerful of a mental force for even Angelo to contain and The Shop deploys para-military forces to stop him. Attaining superhuman intelligence Jobe rids himself of his frail mortal form by downloading his essence into the VSI mainframe. In cyberspace he declares that every telephone on the planet ringing simultaneously will foretell his ascent into virtual godhood and digital immortality.

In 1992 Pierce Brosnan was a hungry young Irish actor looking for his big break. He had headlined the British television series Remington Steele (1982-1987) and was in no uncertain terms destined for made-for-TV movie and low budget action/thriller purgatory if it weren’t for The Lawnmower Man. From there Brosnan went on to star in Chris Columbus’ multiple Academy Award-winning dramedy Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) with Robin Williams that helped raise his international profile considerably. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) put him on the path to play secret agent James Bond in GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), and Die Another Day (2002) – or what has retroactively been considered Bond’s darkest, most destitute, and creatively bankrupt period of the modern era. After Brosnan’s tenure as the debonair and womanizing MI6 agent the Bond series went on hiatus and was reimagined with the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (1967) and with Daniel Craig in tow.

The Lawnmower Man was the screen debut for Austin O’Brien who went on to do a little movie called Last Action Hero (1993) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, probably the most intelligent and meta/self-reflexive action movie deconstruction. In the following years O’Brien would go to star in high profile productions as My Girl 2 (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995) from director Ron Howard. The odd woman out is Jenny Wright who famously played an American groupie in the rock opera Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and from there landed parts in Near Dark (1987), Young Guns II (1988), and I, Madman (1989). Here she looks like a cheap stand-in for Patricia Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, or Amanda Peet. Dean Norris played a bit part in the big budget James Cameron action blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) the year before. Jeff Fahey’s career cannot be put in proper words. Suffice to say he’s been active on the small – and the big screen. In The Lawnmower Man he shines as a budget-friendly Billy Zane and emanates the same untethered madness.

It’s all too often and easily forgotten that once upon a time not so long ago CGI wasn’t so humdrum, ubiquitous, and nefariously omnipresent as it is today. The Lawnmower Man had state-of-the-art computer generated imagery in 1992 and, at least for a while, acted as the standard to which everything else was measured. It's almost impossible to fathom today but in the early 1990s computer games and movies looked distinctly different. Games had cinematic cutscenes and movies used computer graphics, but each was a different niche. For a time at least The Lawnmower Man was the gold standard in CGI. The company behind the CGI was Angel Studios, which would rebrand itself as Rockstar San Diego and become the powerhouse developer behind the Midnight Club and Red Dead Redemption games. Like Brainscan (1994) it’s very much a product of a time wherein technophobia and paranoia ran rampant. The Net (1995) (with Sandra Bullock), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) (with Keanu Reeves), and Strange Days (1995) (with Ralph Fiennes) all explored the possibilities and pitfalls of computer technology, the internet, and virtual reality. No matter how pioneering The Lawnmower Man was careless, if not outright irresponsible, in its caricatural depiction and treatment of domestic violence, mental illness, and abuse by community gatekeepers. It also had no qualms in parading Jenny Wright around in a very small nightie (this being PG-13 nonsense there’s not a naked boob anywhere) and almost all her lines are thinly-veiled sexual innuendo almost exclusively. There’s a decent movie somewhere in The Lawnmower Man, and the director’s cut gets the closest to that.

Somewhere between Altered States (1980) and Village Of the Damned (1960) and roughly following the contours of Daniel Keyes’ 1958 short story Flowers For Algernon The Lawnmower Man waxes faux-philosophically about the human condition while having the unfortunate tendency of biting off more than it can chew. Or at least the most widely available theatrical version suffers from this more than anything. Jobe’s growth is not gradual as in the director’s cut and it paints Angelo as a hard-drinking opportunist nakedly exploiting Jobe to further his own selfish interests. Brosnan is forced to read lines bordering on Ed Wood territory and Jenny Wright is hopelessly paraded around in either skimpy clothes or trashy lingerie. In between there are either sudden bursts of extreme violence, unexpected profanity, or tacky softcore sex. The Lawnmower Man is excruciatingly, profoundly, painfully 90s in its inanity. Had this come with a Simon Boswell or Brad Fiedel score it would have been perfect. This is a techno-thriller that never explains its technology, a body horror that never commits to either the body or the horror, and a character study without a viewpoint character. Possessing neither the foresight to predict the societal impact of the technology it plays with nor the will to explore the human implications thereof The Lawnmower Man is too by-the-numbers in every sense. It is everything and nothing, all at once. Something of a minor hit at the box office the inevitable sequel followed 4 years later ensuring that nobody would be crazy enough to revive the franchise for an encore…