"Be wary of this cigar. Light it only in cases of extreme danger, and throw it away fast. It contains a bomb that spreads a lethal gas when it explodes."
"What about me?"
"Your protection is our utmost priority. This Bic pen is actually a flute. You blow in that little hole. The sound waves break a vial concealed in here. It contains another gas that neutralizes the first gas."
"You watch too many James Bond movies."
"Many more than you think."
But hey, Al Pereira (Eddie Constantine) is gonna need every last one of those exploding umbrellas and mega-wattage electro-gloves if he's going to take down this criminal syndicate. Luminaries the world over are being assassinated by automatons – all with dark skin that fades upon death, all rocking identically stylish glasses, all previously reported missing, and all sharing the same incredibly rare blood type. The suits at Interpol drag Al out of retirement since his veins are pumping with that precious-as-gold Rh-Zero blood. They leave out a couple of pertinent details, seeing as how they hope for Al to be kidnapped by the syndicate and that he'll infiltrate the organization from there. And, yup, Al does indeed wind up in the syndicate's crosshairs, as well as damned near everyone else's.
Attack of the Robots – or Cartes sur table if you're feeling frisky – isn't the sort of movie where I drone on for twelve paragraphs of single-semester-of-film-studies critical analysis. It's an infectiously fun Eurospy romp, with thrills, giggles, twists, and, as if you'd expect anything less from a Jess Franco film, no shortage of impossibly gorgeous women and T&A. Seemingly critical characters may vanish for a half-hour at time. Gags are setup early on that don't pay off until the final moments of the film. Plot points aren't terribly concerned with any logical underpinning. And Attack of the Robots isn't the least bit worse off for all that.
"Should we use the same system? What number do I bet on?"
"Bet on 19. It's my age."
"No cheating in a casino."
"So bet on 25."
Jet-setting! Fistfights! Chases in fancy cars (at least until they're cut short by sheep)! Mind-controlling eyewear! Stripteases! Walkie-talkie toy cars! Femmes fatale! A futuristic lab with banks of dials and some kind of robotification dipping mechanism whatchamacallit! Proof positive that Jess Franco can direct a movie without one crash zoom after another! Attack of the Robots is exactly the movie it sets out to be and succeeds wildly. I'll throw one example your way. Its single most memorable sequence is set in Al's swanky hotel room, as a gaggle of androids square off against Chinese nogoodniks, wrecking the place in the process. The build-up is remarkably well-executed – silent and suspenseful. By the time Al shows up to the party, everyone else is either gone or their corpses hidden, so all he sees is a roomful of upended furniture. By the time he's dragged the hotel manager upstairs to complain, Lee Wee (the decidedly-not-Chinese Vicente Roca) has already dispatched his men to clean it all up. Al thinks he's losing his mind, at least until he stumbles upon the first of several dead bodies...
"There's a corpse in the bathtub."
"It makes me a little uncomfortable taking a shower."
"I know. There are corpses here almost every night."
I had such a blast with Attack of the Robots. If I have any gripes, it's just that Redemption Films has made me realize how much of my life I've wasted by not having embraced Eurospy flicks the way I should've. Well, I guess I have at least one other complaint, and in lieu of the usual tidy summary I'd write here, I'll go straight into it.
At first blush, Attack of the Robots – the last of Jess Franco's black and white films – is nothing short of dazzling. Presented under its original French title of Cartes sur table, the 1.66:1 image is astonishingly crisp and detailed. Its fine, filmic texture has been reproduced beautifully, free of any undue filtering along the way. Nor is this presentation marred by the faintest trace of weathering or damage whatsoever. As long as your eyes are drawn towards the brighter parts of the frame, it's as immaculate and, well, perfect as I could ever have hoped to see.
That Attack of the Robots so often looks breathtakingly gorgeous makes its glaring missteps all the more tragic. In particular, its shadows have a nasty tendency to devolve into disastrous, wildly distracting macroblocking. We're not talking about the sort of concern where you have to freeze-frame at a specific moment, mash your nose against your display, and squint to see the issue. This is pervasive and unmistakable – so much so that I'm not sure how anyone could have watched a check disc on a remotely well-calibrated display and given this dismal result a thumbs-up. While most noticeable during and immediately following the battle royale in Al's hotel suite, this is a concern for the entirety of the film. Basically every shadow in Attack of the Robots is afflicted to some extent. Below are a couple of more extreme examples, though the impact will surely be muted on whatever computer monitor, phone, or tablet you're using to read this review:
Attack of the Robots also suffers from the one-two punch of black levels not being as inky as I'd like and detail still somehow being devoured by darkness. Though less pervasive than the compression misfires discussed above, note the complete lack of shadow detail in the examples below – effectively just a single, solid block of gray for much of these two images. It's black crush, minus the blacks:
The end result makes for a frustrating disc to try to score. The scan and remastering of Attack of the Robots are in so many ways exceptional, yet the inescapable artifacting in any hint of shadow ravages all that masterful work. I can't emphasize enough that this isn't a screenshot scientist picking nits. If you finish watching Attack of the Robots and have no idea what I'm referring to here, either your eyes or your TV are in dire need of adjustment.
While I ticked off most of the usual technical notes throughout that rant, I suppose it should be mentioned somewhere that Attack of the Robots arrives on a BD-25 disc and is coded for region A.
Attack of the Robots defaults to its original French audio, and the accompanying English subtitles are indeed a proper translation, rather than merely transcribing the English dub. (Though I do wish that the subs weren't placed directly over the burned-in French text in a few spots.) And if you're not so much the type for subtitles, there is, yeah, that English language soundtrack as well. Both are monaural LPCM tracks; the French audio is served up in 16-bit, while the English dub gets the 24-bit treatment. I'd traditionally expect the default audio to enjoy the higher bit depth, but I doubt it'd amount to much of a difference in this case.
I watched Attack of the Robots in its entirety in French, and then I went back afterwards and sampled a handful of sequences in English. I prefer the French audio not just for its superior performances but for its fidelity as well. Although the French track does have its share of concerns, my ears find the thin, brittle English dialogue to make for a very unpleasant listen. Also, this Blu-ray release features the French cut of the film, including scenes that were never dubbed into English, so there are apparently holes as a result. I've recorded a couple of comparisons for anyone who's curious how the two stack up:
More loudly shouted dialogue does have a tendency to devolve into near-static on the French track:
...in stark contrast to how startlingly clean and clear it so often sounds:
I'm particularly impressed by the brawl at the marina – the cavernous reverb, the meaty thuds and slams, the whirring wheels, and a...well, perhaps too modest splash of water, but the clarity is wonderful just the same. The lower frequencies strike me as being exaggerated. As much as I'd ordinarily love the thick, booming bass in such a swingin', jazzy score, I can't help but think that it's been dialed unduly high. All in all, though, I still very much consider the French audio to be a success.
The Final Word
My job would be so much easier if not for the disastrous authoring missteps: I'd note what a deliriously fun Eurospy romp Jess Franco has crafted here, praise its beautiful remaster, compliment the language options, and marvel at another in a long line of terrific audio commentaries by Tim Lucas. In big, bold letters, Attack of the Robots would've come recommended and deservedly so.
Alas, the macroblocking pretty much poisons the well for me. Even though it's really only truly miserable in a few sequences, these sputters and stutters are so massive in scale that they completely took me out of the movie. And, admittedly, your mileage may vary. Doing some quick Googling, I've come across several Blu-ray reviews that make no mention of these issues at all – and, indeed, praise the AVC encode. Whatever. I just can't in good conscience suggest that someone shell out somewhere between $20 and $30 for a disc that, at least to my eyes, is this flawed.