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DVD SAVANT

J-Men Forever


J-Men Forever
Cult DVD
1979 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 75 min. / Street Date November 19, 2002 / $14.95
Starring Peter Bergman, Philip Proctor, Machine Gun Kelly, Jack Angel, Margolyn Curtis, Joan Gerber, Rod Gist, Michael C. Gwynne, Jock Livingston, John Mayer, Terry McGovern, Anne Randall Stewart, Richard E. Stewart (all voices)
Cinematography Bruce Logan
Sound effects Alan Splet
Art Direction Galen Longfellow
Film Editor Gail Werbin
Original Music Richard H. Theiss
Written by Peter Bergman and Philip Proctor
Produced by William Howard
Directed by Richard Patterson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ever since Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily?, there have been short-form attempts to lampoon a movie by replacing its soundtrack. Allen took a Japanese spy film, Kagi no Kagi (Key of Keys), which already was a comedy, and from it fashioned a hilarious spoof. The 1979 independent J-Men Forever is even more ambitious, using just about every interesting piece of stock footage from a couple dozen Republic serials, and even a bit of John Wayne from Republic's Flying Tigers. With an emphasis on drug humor and mild ribaldry, this pastiche creatively interweaves two-score plotlines into something resembling a coherent story, tied together by newly shot comedy footage showing the leaders of the J-Men at work. It was conceived by Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman, the source of much of the best of The Firesign Theater, an irreverent radio show that spawned the likes of John Belushi, and survives in bizarre comedy record albums with warped titles like Everything You Know is Wrong.

Synopsis:

From his domain on the Moon, The Lighting Bug (voice: disc jockey Machine Gun Kelly) plans to conquer Earth, arriving with a bag packed with disguises. Using mind-warping drugs and Rock'n Roll as weapons, his nefarious thugs take step one in conquering the world: wiping out the J-Men, a group of intrepid agents and superheroes fighting to keep America safe for polkas and waltzes. Co-ordinated from Washington AC/DC by J-Man Barton (Philip Proctor) and The Chief (Peter Bergman), the colorful crime fighters come up against The Lightning Bug's nefarious spaceships, weapons, traps, and robots!

J-Men Forever has two principal strengths. First, the writing of the replacement script, with every opportunity taken to throw bad puns, drug humor, and sex jokes, is brilliant. The scattershot comedy hits with a one-in-three regularity, which is high for this kind of thing. Second, the eclectic format manages to compress a lot of Republic Serial thrills into one compact show. Captain Marvel (renamed The Caped Madman) transforms with the word "Sh-boom!" instead of "Shazam!"

Rocketman, with his jet backpack's user-friendly controls ('Up'; 'Fast') is now called Rocket Jock, and says things like, "Now to jump on my springboard" when launching himself. When landing, he groans, "Ooh, there go my arches!" Spy Swatter (formerly Spy Smasher) has an adventure with Nazis in North Africa, where everyone comments on his camp outfit.

Since the Republic Serials had a variety of villains, Proctor and Bergman collapse them all into one bad guy, The Lightning Bug. All the different faces and masks are voiced with AM gusto by Machine Gun Kelly, who puts an edge into every bad pun, and punctuates himself with manic laughter as his victims plunge over tall cliffs in sabotaged cars, or are transformed into zombies by exotic gases. The feature is a great showcase for Republic special effects men Howard and Theodore Lydecker, whose miniature explosions, vehicles and flying rigs were emulated by the effects men of 1941, many years later. The outrageous finale, where New York City crumbles as if its skyscrapers were made of graham crackers, is originally stock footage from a 1933 RKO film called Deluge, that was sold to Republic for use in a serial called S.O.S Coast Guard.

The funniest moments are often the small throwaway lines. Nazi goons shout, "Shtay High!" instead of "Seig Heil", and an effeminate French official minces out the brief line, "Close the damn door" to unexpected hilarious effect. When one hero spy hands a female associate a mysterious new device that resembles a vibrator, and she acts very interested in it, the writers seize the opportunity for some good dirty jokes. Vocal inflections make fun of speech impediments, gays, and Frenchmen: "I am a French pederast," one Gallic character says. There's no subtlety whatsoever; the whole concoction slipped under the P.C. net.

Often the humor comes right from the original material. The fights are way over the top, with The Caped Madman tossing terrified henchmen from skyscrapers, and crushing another with the engine block from an automobile. All the while he sings new lyrics to the Air Force Song: "Here I fly, wearing my tight pa-ja-mas!" When a room of stuffy men and one woman listen soberly to a record, now playing a soul-song with a breathy chanteuse singing of ecstasy, the female yanks the disc off the Victrola, remarking, "This music could get me pregnant!"

1979-1980 was the height of drug comedy, with Cheech and Chong starting to make movies, and even Elephant Parts having a 'Name that Drug' and an 'Elvis Drugs' segment. J-Men Forever continually cuts back to a new office setting with Proctor and Bergman lighting up, as if drug humor would keep us in stitches forever. It didn't, and the comedians' schtick isn't particularly funny, but the nostalgia factor is OK by Savant.

J-Men Forever is mostly an editing and writing triumph. The interweaving of the serial material is sometimes crude, yet much more effective than Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, a more sophisticated approach to the same concept using old Film Noir movies. The joke eventually runs thin in both movies, but a buoyancy factor compensates in J-Men Forever. If you're watching this with more than 3 adults who between them can manage a warped sense of humor, it's a perfect party movie.

There's a lot of talent hidden in the credits of this epic, which only the IMDB can uncover. Director Richard Patterson is now the proprietor of Illusion Arts, a top digital effects company. Bruce Logan was also the cinematographer for Tron, just the next year. Voice artist Jack Angel did the vocalizing for 'Teddy' in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. And the good sound effects work was done by the late Alan Splet, who won an Oscar for The Black Stallion, didn't show up to the ceremony, and became the butt of a joke by host Johnny Carson.


Cult DVD's J-Men Forever is an okay transfer of a film that's 90% duped material. Most of the footage is slightly washed out, just as it looked on the USA Network's old Night Flight cable show - where, Stuart Shapiro's disc copy repeatedly reminds us, it was a big hit. The film was refused a real theatrical release, which is a shame, so hopefully the producers will recoup some of their investment here.

The text copy also says the film is remastered, but the original soundtrack is a bit overcompressed and murky ... turning it up loud doesn't make the music clearer, but the dialogue is all mixed way up front, so there'll be no problem following the silliness.

The disc design is very good, with the J-Men's motto, "U Cannibus Smokem" adorning a stoned eagle. In the extras, Proctor and Bergman show up for some zany video 'interviews' that aren't all that inspired, although it's a treat seeing the pair again. Maybe some Audio Savant can direct us to a good online or CD source for some of their Firesign Theater classics.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, J-Men Forever rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: So-so but serviceable
Supplements: Interview segments with Peter Bergman, Phil Proctor, and actor George D. Wallace
Packaging: Clear keep case
Reviewed: December 10, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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