BOTTOM LINE: Stuart Gordon's 1989 sci-fi action adventure spectacle ROBOT JOX is harmless fluff entertainment from producer Charles Band & Empire Pictures. Never heard of ROBOT JOX before? Well, if you love Voltron, Transformers, old school mecha anime or if you ever played Rock'em Sock'em Robots as a kid then you're all set to love this movie. It's not deep stuff by any means but it is a fun way to blow 85 minutes on a rainy weekend. The film itself is a 5 STAR blast. The older MGM DVD release of ROBOT JOX nets a 3 STAR rating, while the new Blu-ray edition rates a slightly higher 4 STARS.
THE STORY (contains spoilers): In the not too distant future, (unspecified, but at least 50 years or more), our world has been ravaged by nuclear war. The future looks pretty bleak & ugly. The atmosphere is heavily-polluted by radiation fallout, requiring people to don air filtration masks whenever they go outside. Because of the heavy loss of human life and planet-wide devastation, war has been outlawed. All political disputes are now settled using massive fighting machines controlled by onboard human pilots. Director Stuart Gordon, (credited with the original story concept), throws in a few thought-provoking ideas about this future world for us to chew on whenever the big 'bots aren't on screen punching each other out, along with some thinly-veiled ironic commentary about our current state. For instance, the global animal population was apparently equally hard hit by the atomic war and its after effects, since a meal with "real meat" (a lone hot dog floating in a watery pot of gruel), is a rare occasion and cause for joyous celebration. (Yuck!) Gambling & drinking seem to be the only forms of recreation left now that the great outdoors ain't all that great anymore. Our educational system also appears to have broken down, but apparently that's not too important. (Nationally-celebrated hero Achilles can't even read, whereas his brother holds down an unglamorous, menial job that involves editing and/or writing!) All citizens are encouraged to breed as many children as possible in order to re-populate the decimated populace, and apparently the more kids you have the better your government-subsidized standard of living is. Defect-free births are stressed using heavy media saturation about proper prenatal care for mothers-to-be. Achilles, champion for The Market, (a presumed stand-in for the USA & her allies), is scheduled to complete the last of 10 compulsory fights against the villainous Alexander, hero of the Confederation (those naughty Russians!). The outcome of the match will decide possession of Alaska and all her precious natural resources. Each previous match has been tipped in favor of the Confederation thru treacherous industrial espionage. Who is selling the robot's weaponry secrets? Ferreting out the identity of the spy may be the deciding factor in whether Achilles wins or loses. What's more, the next generation of robot pilots (the genetically-bred GenJox) are eagerly waiting in the wings, should Achilles fail. Further muddying the waters is Achilles' affection for the beautiful but icy Athena, the first and only female GenJox in contention to pilot the massive battle 'bots.
THOUGHTS: I recall reading everything I could get my hands on about this movie during it's production. Starlog magazine (remember that?) had some fairly good coverage of it, including all the legal wrangling over the original name: RoboJox, which the creators of RoboCop apparently weren't too thrilled with. LOL. It was eventually released with a slight name tweak, and I was lucky enough to actually catch it during its limited theatrical run back in 1989. Director Stuart Gordon was a collector of the then-new Transformer toys, along with being a fan of Japanese mecha-based anime shows such as Macross. He wondered when and/or if Hollywood would take a stab at a live-action big robot movie. Instead of waiting, (and about 20 or so years ahead of his time), Gordon took his ideas to Charles Band & Empire Pictures and did it first himself. I love this quirky little film. It's a highly entertaining rock'em sock'em popcorn movie. (Parental Advisory: there are a couple of gratuitous butt shots, 1 male & 1 female, along with some occasional coarse language so please be advised if you have younger ones.) The robot fights themselves are a lot of fun but pretty restrained due to the film's small (six million) budget, as with all Full Moon/Empire Pictures movies. Unsung indie F/X hero David Allen & Co. do an admirable job using a clever combination of stop-motion and rod & cable-actuated puppetry to bring the big robots to life. There are some fairly ambitious F/X shots to keep things interesting, including a brief but cool sequence where the two robos take to the skies and battle high above the Earth. The robot piloted by Achilles has some neat Transformer-ish abilities that add to the fun. Surprisingly enough for such a low budget movie there are some cool, full-scale robot sets (HUGE feet & the human interface cockpits) for the people to interact with. Certainly Empire really embraced Stu Gordon's ideas and went as big as they could with this fun film. Gary Graham, (shortly before landing his memorable role as Det. Sikes on Fox TV's criminally short-lived series "Alien Nation"), makes a suitably confident & cocky action lead as Achilles. Anne-Marie Johnson shows surprising strength & intensity in her role as Athena, the first genetically-bred combat pilot, (and the feisty love interest for Graham's macho Achilles). But it's Paul Koslo who steals the show with his over-the-top, scene-chewing performance as the baddest of bad guys, Alexander. His hokey "Russian" accent is equal parts Mikael Baryshnikov & Bela Lugosi, and he appears to be having an absolute blast throughout. Character actors Robert Sampson, Danny Kamekona & Michael Alldredge all add their sturdy talents to the diverse cast.
(Watching this again really makes me wonder if Guillermo Del Toro saw this when he was younger. As a self-confessed hardcore sci-fi/monster movie geek he almost certainly MUST have. I mean so much of ROBOT JOX seems to have informed his human-operated Jaeger robots in "PACIFIC RIM." The cockpit interaction in PacRim is especially reminiscent of this film. OK, so Del Toro's robots used two pilots instead of one and his cockpit sets were bigger & more detailed, but he also had a LOT more money to play with than Stu Gordon did. Actually, the only thing missing from ROBOT JOX that would make PacRim an almost by-the-numbers remake are big, slimy monsters for the 'bots to battle. That's not a fault nor an insinuation. Just an observation. They're both very different movies due to age, budgets & F/X technology differences and each is fun in its own way.)
THE DVD: The MGM DVD release is barebones affair. No remastering or restoration of ANY kind was done. The condition of the print for ROBOT JOX looks pretty rough. I observed several instances of dust, dirt & film scratches. The video portion of the film does look better than, say, a factory VHS tape - but not by much. Box artwork is yet another example of the hastily slapped together photoshop junk that we sadly see used far too often for older films nowadays. Lame. All-in-all, MGM's DVD is a disappointing release on home video, and is only marginally recommended for desperate fans of the film who haven't yet upgraded to Blu-ray.
>>> UPDATE! THE BLU-RAY: Shout!Factory (God bless you boys!) has now released a high-def Blu-ray remaster of ROBOT JOX! The picture is noticeably sharper than the DVD release from MGM. Film grain is evident, along with occasional noise due to the transfer technicians cranking up the sharpness for maximum clarity. The audio is solid & strong. My only gripe is that towards the end of the movie the source print contains considerable staining of some kind; brownish dots pepper the screen for a few minutes and it kills what would otherwise be a full five star re-master. Other than that this is a 100% out of the park home run from Shout!Factory. A plethora of excellent bonus material has been stuffed onto the release which should delight fans of the film. A new on camera interview with actor Paul Koslo starts things off, in which he shares his memories & thoughts on the making of the film. Not one, but TWO full-length audio commentary tracks can be accessed on the AUDIO options sub-screen. The first is an insightful offering with director Stu Gordon, the other features several visual effects technicians discussing the film's creation from their perspective. Both commentaries are interesting, fun and well worth a listen. The Blu-ray also includes a wealth of archival interview segments with director Gordon and various F/X crew members. These are older interviews apparently done sometime after 2000, perhaps as supplemental material produced for a fancier DVD edition that never saw the light of day? I don't know, but they are chock full of insightful, amusing stories & trivia, and are very entertaining. The new Blu-ray rounds out the bonus goodies with an obligatory copy of the film's theatrical trailer, plus a TV ad AND two still image galleries: the first of behind-the-scenes photos taken during filming, the second showcasing beautiful concept artwork of the various robots & tech bits from visionary production designer Ron Cobb. Lastly, the Blu-ray slipcase insert features beautiful reversible artwork, as with many recent Shout!Factory releases. Rather than some shoddy photoshop job, two original promotional posters for the film are reproduced for the covers. Pick your favorite! (A very classy touch.)