Savant attended a 1990 exhibitor's convention in Las Vegas called ShoWest to present an expensive Orion product reel, and saw the promotion room of a company called Empire. From a couple of hits in the mid 1980s, entrepreneur Charlie Band built the company up to a mini-studio, making fantasy and horror films both in Hollywood and in Rome.
Robot Jox is probably at the height of Empire's success arc. It was made in Italy, as had been a number of less expensive Cannon films a year or two before. Production values are moderately high and Empire re-teamed director Stuart Gordon and cameraman Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator) in hopes of boxoffice glory. Robot Jox got a serious release but didn't catch on. Its plot is as mechanical as the giant robot fighting machines splayed across the posters. Although the special effects are elaborate for a modestly-budgeted feature, the "rock-'em-sock-'em" robot fights are too short and too tame.
Robot Jox deserves a "B" for effort but its concept is about a decade out of date. Serious movie ideas about man-amplifiers -- mechanical armatures piloted by human drivers -- were already used up in James Cameron's Aliens with Sigourney Weaver's cargo bay forklift machine. The Robot Jox fighting machines are actually much more like the colossal Transformer toys from Japan of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The designs are almost identical, and they fold up and change configuration in almost the same way.
The size of the robots works against the film's excitement potential. Each robot fighter is seven or eight stories tall. When they stand still (which happens a lot) they're dull and when they move they're often unconvincing. Mattes, puppets and stop-motion animation are mixed to create the illusion with varying results. Since the 'bots battle in an almost featureless desert plain, there is little scale comparison and no change of locale to brighten things up.
Worse than that, the fights aren't particularly exciting. The robots just stand there until the one commanded by bad guy Alexander fires some rockets or lasers. Achilles' machine is almost put out of action immediately in all three bouts, making us wonder why the game strategy isn't to fire off everything one has as soon as the referee gives a go signal. The fights are resolved quickly as the robots suffer heavy damage. What's the fun in that? To make things even more absurd, the machines are revealed to be fully-equipped space vehicles, launching into orbit for an unofficial grudge match overtime scene. There's no reason for this except to appeal to kids expecting every super-toy to fly through the air or turn into a submarine at will.
The plot and dialogue are kept at a PG level, although that rating is a curious one considering the flirtation with nudity and one shower-room glimpse at Anne-Marie Johnson's rump. I guess it was not a 'sexual situation' by MPAA standards, but I know a lot of parents that would be infuriated just the same. The story could have come from a 1932 midget race car movie with a grudge match between drivers and a hotshot female ace who tries to muscle in on the action. Sci Fi set dressings are ambitious but sketchy - a plexiglass hovercraft-car, futuristic apartments, etc. It all comes down to a rivalry as basic as a Popeye cartoon. Nasty Russian bad guy Alexander tries to provoke and intimidate hero Achillles, Achilles wants to retire against popular insistence that he fight again. The movie isn't pretentious, like either version of Rollerball, but neither can it claim any particular reason for existing. In the long run, it's a limp live-action version of the kind of thing done much better in Anime cartoons.
Gary Graham (Hardcore) is a fairly talented and handsome guy in the Harry Hamlin mold and Anne-Marie Johnson was taking time off from the In the Heat of the Night television show. She plays a test-tube baby, or "Tubie" whose ambition to be a top Robo Jox ace runs into a glass ceiling of sexist prejudice. The script leaves this idea undeveloped along with several dozen others. There's a potentially interesting espionage subplot between loyal Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) and turncoat trainer Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge) that doesn't pan out either. Jeffrey Combs, the star of Re-Animator has a very small supporting role as a 'prole' betting on the Robot Jox battle.
Robot Jox also suffers in the special effects category because digital effects were about to sweep away the painstaking old-school efforts seen here. Some illusions are quite handsome but for every good angle there are two others with yawning matte lines, grainy rear-projection or just plain rushed design. The scale of the project was too ambitious for the technology that could be afforded, and the design of the robots and what they had to do didn't leave much room for stop-motion animator David Allen's talents to shine through.
Sony (MGM)'s DVD of Robot Jox is a fine enhanced transfer of very good elements. The flat-lit futuristic interiors are bright and sharp and the variable effects shot are given every opportunity to look good. Savant's seen the movie on an old laserdisc and the new widescreen aspect ratio is a big help in most scenes. Completists and giant robot fanatics will appreciate the quality of presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Robot Jox rates: