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Directed by Stuart Gordon, better known for horror films like Re-Animator and Dagon, 1989's Robot Jox started out as an Empire Pictures presentation until that company ran out of money and couldn't complete the project. From there, it went to Epic and two years after it had been started, the movie was finished. It eventually wound up in the possession of MGM, who gave it a pretty decent DVD release years back and now it's making its Blu-ray debut thanks to Shout! Factory.
The story takes place in the future, where countries no longer send thousands of soldiers into battle to go to war but instead engage in combat settled between two ‘mech' style giant piloted machines. Think Robotech or Pacific Rim and you're on the right track. It's a much better idea than slaughtering countless people when you think about it. Here's hoping our world leaders can learn from this film.
At any rate, there are two guys in this arena that are considered the best of the best: Achilles (Gary Graham) and Alexander (Paul Koslo). They pilot their mean machines to the middle of Death Valley where they are to compete for possession of Alaska, a territory now under dispute. Things go south fast when Achilles winds up killing a few hundred spectators and because of this, the contest is declared a draw. Brought in to replace Achilles, who is refusing to go against Alexander a second time, is a genetically engineered pilot named Athena (Ann-Marie Johnson). Of course, Alexander almost kills her in their match and Achilles, out to get vengeance in her name and now put Alexander in his place, decides to get back in the ring and take him on in the ultimate contest involving man and machine.
Robot Jox, though the most expensive film Empire had made at the time, is a low budget picture but one that makes the most of its limited funding to offer up something creative and fun. Clearly intended to hit with a younger than average audience (most of Empire's stuff was geared towards an R rating whereas this is a safe PG), it's a picture that puts entertainment front and center. We don't really get a whole lot of background info on how the world got to be where it is when we land in the picture and we don't get loads of character development either, but what we do get more than makes up for that: giant robots beating each other up. While this will appeal more to science fiction and action movies fans, there's a lot of entertainment value to be had here, particularly for those who can and do appreciate practical effects over modern CGI tactics. Yes, what Guillermo Del Toro accomplished with Pacific Rim was impressive but what's on display here is done entirely in camera. That means no computer effects but instead some great miniature work, awesome props and really cool stop motion effects. Younger audiences weaned on digital effects might find this primitive, but if it's what you grew up with and still want to see in your B-movies, then odds are pretty good you'll instead find it charming.
Performances are more than sufficient, if never truly remarkable. Gary Graham, who would later go on to star in Alien Nation and Star Trek: Enterprise, is fine as the good guy in the film. He's got enough charisma to make it work and we like him enough to side with him here. On the flipside, Paul Koslo of The Omega Man and about seven million supporting roles here and there over the years, has the right look and screen presence to bring the ‘bad guy' to life quite nicely. Throw in pretty Ann-Marie Johnson (who has had a pretty prolific career in TV over the last few decades) as our genetically modified pilot and Gordon regular player Jeffrey Combs in a bit part and yeah, the case here do just fine.
But let's be honest… you're going to watch this one because it offers up a whole lot of awesome footage of giant robots beating each other up. Let's not over analyze it or overthink things and instead enjoy Robot Jox for the simple pleasures that it provides in heaping helpings.The Blu-ray:
Robot Jox arrives on Blu-ray framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. The movie uses a lot of stop motion effects and optical effects and for that reason detail will jump around a bit but taking that into account, things still look pretty good here. Colors are reproduced very nicely, looking bright and bold but not too pumped up or oversaturated. Black levels aren't quite reference quality but they're solid while skin tones look natural enough. Detail will vary depending on the effects work and what not but it's definitely way past what the old DVD could provide. Generally the picture is nice and clean too. There's some minor specks here and there but no major print damage while the image is free of noise reduction or heavy filtering of any kind. All in all, Robojox translates to Blu-ray quite nicely!Sound:
Audio options are provided in English language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo with removable subtitles provided in English only. This is a decent stereo mix for sure, there's some pretty solid channel separation while the levels remain properly balanced throughout. There are no noticeable problems with any hiss or distortion while the dialogue stays clean and clear throughout the film.Extras:
The extras on the disc start out with an audio commentary from Director Stuart Gordon, who talks about how he came onboard to direct this film, his relationship with the producers, budgetary restraints, effects work, casting the film, working alongside the actors and more. Gordon is always an interesting guy to listen to and he's got a good memory. Fans will enjoy this. The disc also includes a second audio commentary, this time with Associate Effects Director Paul Gentry, Mechanical Effects Artist Mark Rappaport, and Stop-Motion Animator Paul Jessel. As you'd expect this one is a bit more technical as, understandably, the focus of the talk is on the effects work but if you find that type of thing interesting, there's a lot to enjoy here. They discuss the miniatures and stop motion effects used in the film, some of the props that had to be built, the difficulties of doing all of this in camera and on budget and quite a bit more.
Also worth checking out is a new interview with actor Paul Koslo who speaks for just over ten minutes about playing the heavy in the film. He looks back on this one pretty fondly, speaking warmly about his time on set, his fellow cast members, working with Gordon and more. Shout! Factory have also included a nice selection of archival interviews ranging in length from about seven to ten minutes. Stuart Gordon, Pyrotechnic Supervisor Joe Viskocil, Associate Effects Director Paul Gentry, Stop-Motion Animator Paul Jessel and Animation & Effects Artists Chris Endicott and Mark McGee all appear on camera here to discuss their respective contributions to the movie and share some interesting stories about their work. Gordon covers some of the same ground here as he does in his commentary but that's understandable.
Rounding out the extras is fourteen minutes of Behind-The-Scenes Footage shot on a camcorder that shows off what went into getting some of the effects work featured in the movie completed, a pair of still galleries, a TV spot, a theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
Robot Jox is a great example of just how cool and fun low budget practical effects work can be when done right. The movie goes at a good pace, offers up plenty of action and excitement and it's just a really entertaining watch. It might not be deep, but it works. The Blu-ray release is a good one, carrying over all of the extras from the previous DVD release and throwing in a few new ones as well in addition to offering up a nicely improved audio and video presentation. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.