That Cannon Stamp

I’ve read more than one description of The Expendables as a kind of ’80s action film. Director-cowriter-star Sylvester Stallone has not only paid tribute to his action-star heyday, but resuscitated the look and style of Reagan-era action flicks (including, to some extent, the calibre of special effects as they existed back then). But there’s a better, simpler shorthand: The Expendables is a 1986 or ’87 Cannon Film. It feels cut from the same cloth as Cobra and Over The Top.

The trick or attitude with The Expendables (or at least one that I suspect was in Stallone’s head when he made it) is that it’s an ’80s action flick in quotes. The fighting and gun battles are staged with vigor and meant to be taken as semi-serious high-throttle diversion, but also with a self-referential nudge. Stallone and Willis and Lundgren and the rest doing the old half-chuckle and saying “remember this shit when it was fresh, or at least fresher?”

Cannon-produced action pics never winked. For all their relentless mediocrity, they all had a fairly solemn tone. But The Expendables summons the Cannon spirit by being fairly cheeseball. It seems to have been made with an assumption that its audience doesn’t want anything too shaded or subtle or deeply felt — that they would actually be unhappy if it went in those directions.

With the exception of Runaway Train, Cannon action flicks were always boilerplate and frequently awful. Anyone who’s ever seen Down Twisted (’87), directed by Albert Pyun, knows what I’m saying.

Cannon Films was a very curious culture with an exploitation film attitude (i.e., movies regarded as “product”), but Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus threw a lot of money around and a lot of serious people took it for this and that reason.

“I had my nose pressed against the glass for 20 years,” Norman Mailer once said about Tough Guys Don’t Dance. “It took Cannon Pictures to say they believed in me to the tune of $5 million. There were nights when Menahem Golan woke up and said, ‘I’m giving $5 million to a crazy man who’s never directed a movie? I must be crazy myself.’”

I worked as a Cannon press-kit writer (staff) for much of ’86, all of ’87 and into early ’88, so I know whereof I speak. I know all about that operation and the mentality behind it. There were quality exceptions here and there (which I was very grateful for), but the films were mainly schlock. Which fostered a certain atmosphere among Cannon employees. “Fatalism mixed with humiliation resulting in gallows humor” is one way to describe it.

I had a nice little office on the fourth floor. I had a desk, phone, window, chair, two filing cabinets and a styrofoam ceiling that I used to lob sharp pencils into when I was bored. But I also got to meet and work with Barbet Schroeder on Barfly, Mailer on Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Herbert Ross on Dancers, Tobe Hooper and L.M. Kit Carson on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Godfrey Reggio on Powaqqatsi and Richard Franklin on Link.

I barely spoke to Golan and Globus, and that was okay.

But I was in the building when Schroeder stood in Golan’s office and threatened to cut off his finger with an electric chainsaw if Golan didn’t greenlight Barfly. And I talked to Mickey Rourke over the phone once and managed to piss him off (but that was par for the course back then). And I became slightly chummy with former SNL alumnus Charles Rocket (who killed himself about five years ago). And at Schroeder’s insistence I rewrote the Barfly press kit about ten or twelve times (to the point I couldn’t read the sentences any longer), but I learned that relentless re-writing, if you’re tough enough to handle it, does result in a bulletproof final draft.

I also had to write press kits for Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Assassination, The Barbarians, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, Masters of the Universe, Down Twisted, The Arrogant and others I’d rather not think about.

Here’s a great Cannon website with several funny quotes.

51 thoughts on “That Cannon Stamp

  1. Yeah, but other than being a nostalgic throwback, is there any reason to want to see it? Put another way, if it had come out 15 years ago, would people be interested?

  2. Yeah, but other than being a nostalgic throwback, is there any reason to want to see it? Put another way, if it had come out 15 years ago, would people be interested?

  3. If The Expendables had come out in ’86 or ’87, it would have done fairly decent business. Not as much as it’s expected to the weekend after next, but….

  4. If The Expendables had come out in ’86 or ’87, it would have done fairly decent business. Not as much as it’s expected to the weekend after next, but….

  5. “. . . . and others I’d rather not think about.”

    You’re telling me it gets worse than Invaders from Mars and Masters of the Universe. Whatever they paid you, they did not pay you enough.

  6. “. . . . and others I’d rather not think about.”

    You’re telling me it gets worse than Invaders from Mars and Masters of the Universe. Whatever they paid you, they did not pay you enough.

  7. Wells to Helms Deep: That’s a fairly asinine thing for you to write, if I do say so myself. The writing is pretty good in this piece, but I did it in less than two hours so it’s only as good as it can get within this framework. The opportunity to refine over days and weeks is obviously not an option.

  8. Wells to Helms Deep: That’s a fairly asinine thing for you to write, if I do say so myself. The writing is pretty good in this piece, but I did it in less than two hours so it’s only as good as it can get within this framework. The opportunity to refine over days and weeks is obviously not an option.

  9. Albert Pyun has churned out almost a movie a year since 1982, but have any of them made their way to a theater? I understand that these things come out on video/DVD and show up at 3 am on Cinemax, but why would anyone buy/rent/watch them? This is one side of the business I don’t get. Why are all such movies made, beyond giving paydays to the likes of Michael Pare?

  10. Albert Pyun has churned out almost a movie a year since 1982, but have any of them made their way to a theater? I understand that these things come out on video/DVD and show up at 3 am on Cinemax, but why would anyone buy/rent/watch them? This is one side of the business I don’t get. Why are all such movies made, beyond giving paydays to the likes of Michael Pare?

  11. Well, I for one, am glad someone made The Expendables….

    CG has taken the magic out of action movies. In 2010, we can watch Hancock destroy an entire city block, and barely bat an eye. Not like the old days when a simple James Bond helicopter chase was enough to get the blood pumping a little.

    I was never a HUGE fan of action films, but I must admit that it might put a slight grin on my face to see some good old-fashioned musclehead badassery — something like Die Hard or Commando or whatever.

  12. Well, I for one, am glad someone made The Expendables….

    CG has taken the magic out of action movies. In 2010, we can watch Hancock destroy an entire city block, and barely bat an eye. Not like the old days when a simple James Bond helicopter chase was enough to get the blood pumping a little.

    I was never a HUGE fan of action films, but I must admit that it might put a slight grin on my face to see some good old-fashioned musclehead badassery — something like Die Hard or Commando or whatever.

  13. Great piece Wells. These types of stories are the reason I started reading you over 10 years ago. Sadly, they seem few and far between these days. I love the Hollywood insider tales, especially anything with a little bit of history to it. I remember the Canon films fondly, as a young boy I knew their logo at the beginning of a film meant I was most likely in for some good debauchery.

    As for The Expendables, I’m intrigued, I dig most of those actors, but I don’t know if it’s enough to plop down $9. I’ll mostly likely wait for the Blu-Ray, which will be out in 3 months. Maybe if they hadn’t already shown us the Arnold/Bruce cameo in the trailer, I might have gone just for that.

  14. Great piece Wells. These types of stories are the reason I started reading you over 10 years ago. Sadly, they seem few and far between these days. I love the Hollywood insider tales, especially anything with a little bit of history to it. I remember the Canon films fondly, as a young boy I knew their logo at the beginning of a film meant I was most likely in for some good debauchery.

    As for The Expendables, I’m intrigued, I dig most of those actors, but I don’t know if it’s enough to plop down $9. I’ll mostly likely wait for the Blu-Ray, which will be out in 3 months. Maybe if they hadn’t already shown us the Arnold/Bruce cameo in the trailer, I might have gone just for that.

  15. Wonderful piece, and I have to think that if Cannon were still around, most of the stars from The Expendables (including Willis and Arnold), would be making Cannon action schlock. Variety would be full of three or four “pre-production” full page announcements from each Expendables star.

    That said — Barfly, Love Streams, Tough Guys, Powaqqasti — all noble projects.

  16. Wonderful piece, and I have to think that if Cannon were still around, most of the stars from The Expendables (including Willis and Arnold), would be making Cannon action schlock. Variety would be full of three or four “pre-production” full page announcements from each Expendables star.

    That said — Barfly, Love Streams, Tough Guys, Powaqqasti — all noble projects.

  17. I never in a million years would have thought that Jeff Wells was the man that did the press kit for Electric Boogaloo.

  18. I never in a million years would have thought that Jeff Wells was the man that did the press kit for Electric Boogaloo.

  19. My favorite Cannons were always the Bronsons, and to a lesser degree the Norrises, but amusing how they alternated between exactly TWO templates for any of their action fare:

    1) Low-rent urban vigilante movie, always set in THE most overcast Los Angeles imaginable. I’ve lived in LA forever, and it’s sunny 9 months of the year with three months of intermittent rain; But somehow Cannon always managed to make it look so overcast, wan and gray with hazy skies, their sheen made fucking Orion movies look like a Michael Bay sunset scene. To some degree maybe it was just the washed-out VHS look I’m remembering, but even on DVD things like KINJITE and DEATH WISH IV and INVASION USA have that depressing, sleazy Cannon look.

    2) American Ninja or Vietnam movie shot in the Philippines, usually starring Michael Dudikoff. I’ll tell you, if Dudikoff or Steve James didn’t attain Filipino citizenship between 1985 and 1989, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Braddock MIA movies fit this template too– all green and hazy and looking like they were shot through an opium cloud, all synthed scored and shot with ZERO camera tricks or filters or style WHATSOEVER. RIVER OF DEATH, POW THE ESCAPE, PLATOON LEADER. Seriously, gotta give it Golan/Globus for not fucking around– a year after PLATOON, they drop something called PLATOON LEADER.

    The weirdest moment in Platoon Leader is the opening scene, as Dudikoff and company htich a ride on a chopper with character actor Brian Libby, who most remember as the Michael Myers-esque killer from SILENT RAGE. He does this monologue worthy of Mamet about the nature of war and not once but two times in a long, drawn-out voice goes:

    “IIIIIIIIIIt’s…. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!”

    I can’t do it justice, but it’s one of the strangest acting choices I’ve ever scene.

  20. My favorite Cannons were always the Bronsons, and to a lesser degree the Norrises, but amusing how they alternated between exactly TWO templates for any of their action fare:

    1) Low-rent urban vigilante movie, always set in THE most overcast Los Angeles imaginable. I’ve lived in LA forever, and it’s sunny 9 months of the year with three months of intermittent rain; But somehow Cannon always managed to make it look so overcast, wan and gray with hazy skies, their sheen made fucking Orion movies look like a Michael Bay sunset scene. To some degree maybe it was just the washed-out VHS look I’m remembering, but even on DVD things like KINJITE and DEATH WISH IV and INVASION USA have that depressing, sleazy Cannon look.

    2) American Ninja or Vietnam movie shot in the Philippines, usually starring Michael Dudikoff. I’ll tell you, if Dudikoff or Steve James didn’t attain Filipino citizenship between 1985 and 1989, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Braddock MIA movies fit this template too– all green and hazy and looking like they were shot through an opium cloud, all synthed scored and shot with ZERO camera tricks or filters or style WHATSOEVER. RIVER OF DEATH, POW THE ESCAPE, PLATOON LEADER. Seriously, gotta give it Golan/Globus for not fucking around– a year after PLATOON, they drop something called PLATOON LEADER.

    The weirdest moment in Platoon Leader is the opening scene, as Dudikoff and company htich a ride on a chopper with character actor Brian Libby, who most remember as the Michael Myers-esque killer from SILENT RAGE. He does this monologue worthy of Mamet about the nature of war and not once but two times in a long, drawn-out voice goes:

    “IIIIIIIIIIt’s…. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!”

    I can’t do it justice, but it’s one of the strangest acting choices I’ve ever scene.

  21. I love Canon films, because I’m obsessed with the 80′s and VHS culture. Can’t really defend my love of Canon films, they are admittedly, awful. but an entertaining style of awful that is so reminiscent of the 80′s… love canon…

  22. I love Canon films, because I’m obsessed with the 80′s and VHS culture. Can’t really defend my love of Canon films, they are admittedly, awful. but an entertaining style of awful that is so reminiscent of the 80′s… love canon…

  23. I can sit through — and in some cases even appreciate — a bad movie. But I just have zero tolerance for movies that are bad on purpose, which it sounds like what The Expendables is striving for. A bad movie that’s winking at me about how bad it is…what’s the point? So many better ways that money could have been spent.

  24. I can sit through — and in some cases even appreciate — a bad movie. But I just have zero tolerance for movies that are bad on purpose, which it sounds like what The Expendables is striving for. A bad movie that’s winking at me about how bad it is…what’s the point? So many better ways that money could have been spent.

  25. Rambo was recently on Spike TV or FX. The dirty little secret is that deprived of its admittedly fun ultraviolence, that’s kind of a terrible movie.

  26. Rambo was recently on Spike TV or FX. The dirty little secret is that deprived of its admittedly fun ultraviolence, that’s kind of a terrible movie.

  27. Cannon-produced action pics never winked. For all their relentless mediocrity, they all had a fairly solemn tone.

    An exception was the action/comedy hybrid of J. Lee Thompson’s FIREWALKER–teaming Chuck Norris (more relaxed than in other films) and Louis Gossett, Jr.

  28. Cannon-produced action pics never winked. For all their relentless mediocrity, they all had a fairly solemn tone.

    An exception was the action/comedy hybrid of J. Lee Thompson’s FIREWALKER–teaming Chuck Norris (more relaxed than in other films) and Louis Gossett, Jr.

  29. Wells to Nightheat: I didn’t say that The Expendables is bad on purpose. I’m saying there a bit of nudge-nudge thing in reference to its 80s action film roots, and how it feels like a present-day ’80s action film, even technically. The badness, I’m presuming, came out of Stallone doing the best he could, which just isn’t good enough.

  30. Wells to Nightheat: I didn’t say that The Expendables is bad on purpose. I’m saying there a bit of nudge-nudge thing in reference to its 80s action film roots, and how it feels like a present-day ’80s action film, even technically. The badness, I’m presuming, came out of Stallone doing the best he could, which just isn’t good enough.

  31. reverent: There wouldn’t be a point to it 15 years ago, because those kinds of action movies weren’t entirely out of vogue back then.

  32. reverent: There wouldn’t be a point to it 15 years ago, because those kinds of action movies weren’t entirely out of vogue back then.

  33. “Rambo was recently on Spike TV or FX.”

    Now would that be “Rambo” or “Rambo First Blood Part 2″? Heck, what do people even call Rambo (1985) these days? I mean, we called it that for almost twenty-five years, than Stallone goes off and screws with us.

    Man, do I hate reductive sequel titles.

  34. “Rambo was recently on Spike TV or FX.”

    Now would that be “Rambo” or “Rambo First Blood Part 2″? Heck, what do people even call Rambo (1985) these days? I mean, we called it that for almost twenty-five years, than Stallone goes off and screws with us.

    Man, do I hate reductive sequel titles.

  35. I saw a lot of Cannon movies in the theater when I was a teenager, and they fit the bill for those weekends when there was no interesting big budget studio movie demanding your immediate attention. They were basically the equivalent of the 70′s New World car chase movies, or the 60′s AIP biker movies—schlocky, but could be usually be counted on to deliver the action goods. That’s not nothing.

    Best of the bunch were the Bronson’s, definitely, especially Death Wish 3 and the almost-an-honest-to-God-good movie Murphy’s Law. Chuck Norris sort of fell into a rut at Cannon—a shame, since he was starting to develop into an interesting leading man in stuff like Lone Wolf McQuade and Code Of Silence for Orion. He might have become Clint Eastwood if he hadn’t signed his life away to Cannon. Michael Dudikoff never impressed me too much, but his pseudo Invasion USA sequel Avenging force is pretty good.

    Oh, also, all the Cannon Ninja movies are fun, although they do the really dumb thing of dubbing Franco Nero in Enter The Ninja. Like we didn’t know what Franco Nero sounded like by 1981?

    I’m getting all nostalgic now. Lucinda Dickey Power!

  36. I saw a lot of Cannon movies in the theater when I was a teenager, and they fit the bill for those weekends when there was no interesting big budget studio movie demanding your immediate attention. They were basically the equivalent of the 70′s New World car chase movies, or the 60′s AIP biker movies—schlocky, but could be usually be counted on to deliver the action goods. That’s not nothing.

    Best of the bunch were the Bronson’s, definitely, especially Death Wish 3 and the almost-an-honest-to-God-good movie Murphy’s Law. Chuck Norris sort of fell into a rut at Cannon—a shame, since he was starting to develop into an interesting leading man in stuff like Lone Wolf McQuade and Code Of Silence for Orion. He might have become Clint Eastwood if he hadn’t signed his life away to Cannon. Michael Dudikoff never impressed me too much, but his pseudo Invasion USA sequel Avenging force is pretty good.

    Oh, also, all the Cannon Ninja movies are fun, although they do the really dumb thing of dubbing Franco Nero in Enter The Ninja. Like we didn’t know what Franco Nero sounded like by 1981?

    I’m getting all nostalgic now. Lucinda Dickey Power!

  37. Wow Jeff, I would love to read what you wrote for POWAQQATSI.

    Coppola…Lucas…and CANNON

    What a combination of names for a movie poster. I was a big fan of KOYAANISQATSI and remember driving a couple of hours to a theater that was playing POWAQQATSI back in Summer ’88.

    Gotta thank CANNON for that one.

    Some of the group I saw it with were so bored they snuck into BULL DURHAM instead.

    But I always appreciated the photography and music, which hold up really well today. We all know how much Samuel Bayer and The Smashing Pumpkins love the opening sequence.

    It would take Soderbergh and Miramax to get the third film NAQOYQATSI into the can in 2002.

    Not for all tastes, but a one-of-a-kind series of unique filmmaking.

  38. Wow Jeff, I would love to read what you wrote for POWAQQATSI.

    Coppola…Lucas…and CANNON

    What a combination of names for a movie poster. I was a big fan of KOYAANISQATSI and remember driving a couple of hours to a theater that was playing POWAQQATSI back in Summer ’88.

    Gotta thank CANNON for that one.

    Some of the group I saw it with were so bored they snuck into BULL DURHAM instead.

    But I always appreciated the photography and music, which hold up really well today. We all know how much Samuel Bayer and The Smashing Pumpkins love the opening sequence.

    It would take Soderbergh and Miramax to get the third film NAQOYQATSI into the can in 2002.

    Not for all tastes, but a one-of-a-kind series of unique filmmaking.

  39. What a wonderful post.

    A few random comments:

    Menahem Golan, whom I greatly admire, is currently being recognized by the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. He is about to receive a special award for Best Independent Producer. Given to producers for “their courage, their ability to take a risk and support auteurs”.

    While there is a fair amount of legitimate criticism that can be directed towards Cannon, I found the book “Hollywood A-Go-Go” (pictured in the article) to be rather biased against them, rather than looking at the issues from an objective point-of-view. Which can be attributed to the vast criticism they got in the UK (where the book was published) after taking over the Elstree Studios.

    For anyone who might be interested, a couple of years ago I conducted a long interview with Golan, which is available at Films in Review: http://www.filmsinreview.com/2008/08/20/interview-menahem-golan/

    Thank you for a great post!

  40. What a wonderful post.

    A few random comments:

    Menahem Golan, whom I greatly admire, is currently being recognized by the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. He is about to receive a special award for Best Independent Producer. Given to producers for “their courage, their ability to take a risk and support auteurs”.

    While there is a fair amount of legitimate criticism that can be directed towards Cannon, I found the book “Hollywood A-Go-Go” (pictured in the article) to be rather biased against them, rather than looking at the issues from an objective point-of-view. Which can be attributed to the vast criticism they got in the UK (where the book was published) after taking over the Elstree Studios.

    For anyone who might be interested, a couple of years ago I conducted a long interview with Golan, which is available at Films in Review: http://www.filmsinreview.com/2008/08/20/interview-menahem-golan/

    Thank you for a great post!

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