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20 Essential Films For An Introduction To The Cannon Cult Films

20 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Neil Evans

best Cannon films

“We’re Cannon Films and we’re dynamite!”

– Quote from promotional trailer.

Formed in 1967, American film production company Cannon Films specialised in under the radar cult movies and the type of cinema that big league Hollywood wouldn’t touch. One of their most popular and profitable films was “Joe”, directed by John G. Aviledson, who would go on to greater fame directing both of the first installments of the “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” franchises in, respectively, 1976 and 1984.

Cannon films were bought by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979. This ushered in a completely different approach and style of films and film making for the studio who, were by this point in time, flat lining in regards to both the amount of product they produced and the money they made.

As recently depicted in Mark Hartley’s immensely enjoyable documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films”, the Israeli cousins took a wildly different approach to movie making than their American counterparts. Their philosophy and attitude won them as many fans as it did enemies in the business. Their way of making movies was to take bottom of the barrel scripts and rush them into production.

While admirable in the way they as people avoided Hollywood business clichés such as ‘the long lunch’ and ‘tennis’, the way they cut corners with their productions, such as making films without complete budget, ‘creative’ accounting, not hiring stuntmen and getting the actors on their films to do the stunts themselves and having something like fifty films in various states of production over the space of a year made Golan and Globus something of a laughing stock in the eyes of the Hollywood establishment.

The Golan-Globus films also displayed an unsettling level of mysoginy and general mistreatment of women on screen. Case in point: Michael Winner’s “Death Wish II”, from 1982.

This film in particular, more so than others produced by the company, displayed an unhealthy link between sex and violence on screen. Obviously trying to court ‘controversy’ and make a name for themselves, the result was that, rather than being a mere exploitation film, it veered into an uncomfortable zone where the audience felt cheap and exploited for watching it.

This radically different style to film production would result in films that were of a wildly varying level of quality. For every cheap action film starring Chuck Norris, you would occasionally see a truly brilliant film such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train”.

Here are twenty highlights (and lowlights) from the back catalogue of Cannon Films.

 

1. Gas Pump Girls (1979) Directed by Joel Bender

Gas Pump Girls (1979)

With a plot you could write on the back of a postage stamp, this mindless tits n’ ass comedy at its most basic. Two sets of petrol stations competing with each other for business, with the stunts to get customers becoming more outlandish as the film progressed.

However, this has a significant amount of appeal to it. Put it this way. It looks like it was made for a few hundred bucks. In contrast, it made a significant amount of money on the then popular drive-in circuit across the world. In other words, it’s not a film that’s going to change the world, but it will entertain you for an hour and a half.

 

2. The Apple (1980) Directed by Menahem Golan

The Apple (1980)

This was the film that Golan was convinced that would put Cannon Films on the map, when instead it went down like a lead balloon at the box office.

An utterly bizarre and unique mash up of The Book Of Genesis, the musical/film “Tommy”, a tale of dystopian future and the Eurovision Song Contest, this is a true ‘perfect storm’ of awfulness to the point where it becomes somewhat compelling!

Bit of trivia: the choreography on “The Apple” was done by Nigel Lythgoe, who would go on to be one of the judges on the American version of “So You Think You Can Dance?”! Wonder if he still puts this craptacular effort on his resume! Believe me, there will be moments where you watch “The Apple” and repeatedly slap yourself in the forehead but, at the same time, you can’t quite look away!

 

3. Enter The Ninja (1981) Directed by Menahem Golan

Enter The Ninja (1981)

The start of Cannon’s infamous “Ninja” trilogy. In a truly ridiculous plot, Franco Nero plays a Westerner familiar with the art and philosophy of Ninja. The plot ceases to matter in minutes of the film kicking off. “Enter The Ninja” is all about people in fancy Ninja outfits whacking the absolute bejesus out of each other.

Unlike some of the Hollywood big players, Golan and Globus really jumped on to the potential of the home market early, with the advent of the video cassette recorder. Although not a particularly big box office hit, “Enter The Ninja” was a film that really found a market on video.

 

4. Death Wish II (1982) Directed by Michael Winner

Death Wish II (1982)

A follow up to the confronting and highly disturbing 1974 film “Death Wish”, this sees Charles Bronson once again reprise his role as avenging vigilatnte Lee Kersey. Ramping up the violence and mayhem to truly illogical levels, this is an example of a British director pushing the envelope for cheap and nasty gains.

As mentioned above, this more than any other Cannon film has a particularly nasty and unsettling tone, particularly in its relation to sexual violence. In turn, cinema audiences stayed away in droves. Another film that found its audience in the home market, this illustrates all that is negative about Cannon Films and its bosses.

 

5. Revenge Of The Ninja (1983) Directed by Sam Firstenburg

Revenge Of The Ninja (1983)

Concerning Ninjas and drug trafficking in America, this one put martial arts superstar Sho Kosugi front and centre. Needed anyone to play a Ninja in your movie in the Eighties? This was your guy! Again, like its predecessor “Enter The Ninja”, this was all about the mayhem and spectacle of what you could do with the human body and all the fancy weapons inherent with Ninjitsu.

Shot for about $500,000 this made a whopping $13 million at the box office. While making ‘cheap’ films, Golan and Globus occasionally hit the mark in a spectacular way, as with this item.

 

6. Missing In Action (1984) Directed by Joseph Zito

Missing In Action (1984)

Cannon’s answer to John Rambo was Colonel James Braddock. Essayed by the strong of jaw and quick of feet Chuck Norris, Braddock was a Vietnam veteran returning to the battle zone he had survived to bring American soldiers home.

Jingoistic and subtle as a sledgehammer, this proved to be a box office bonanza for Cannon Films. Shot back to back with its sequel, “Missing In Action: The Beginning”, this was actually supposed to be the second film in the series, but was released first at the behest of the studio heads. It proved to be a canny business move on the part of Golan and Globus.

 

7. Ninja III: Domination (1984) Directed by Sam Firstenburg

Ninja III Domination (1984)

In what would be the final part of Cannon’s “Ninja” opus, future “Breakin’” star Lucinda Dickey plays a dancer possessed by the spirit of a long dead, evil ninja.

Yes, this film is as ridiculous as the above paragraph sounds! My advice is to simply go where this rather mental film takes you. Not that I endorse or promote this sort of behaviour, but a six pack and a pizza would be good company on this trip.

 

8. Breakin’ (1984) Directed by Sam Firstenburg

Breakin’ (1984)

1984 would prove to be something of a banner year for Golan and Globus. “Breakin’” was a classic example of filmmakers having their finger on the pulse and being in the right place at the right time.

Made to cash in on the then insanely popular breakdancing craze that was sweeping the globe, this film was made for less than a million dollars, featuring no name stars. It went on to take over $36 million at the box office, trouncing its competing film on the same subject, “Beat Street”.

After getting it right with “Breakin’”, its sequel “Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo” (shot back to back with its original), illustrated all too well how the almost gambling-like approach could backfire on Golan and Globus in an instant. By the time the sequel was released, the craze had well and truly died, leaving the studio with something of a white elephant that no one really wanted to watch.

The way that “Breakin’” was made quick and on the cheap is illustrative of the almost shark-like nature that Golan and Globus displayed in regards to making money and getting their product out into the world consciousness.

 

9. Runaway Train (1985) Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Runaway Train

Trying to prove to the world that they could produce more than throwaway trash, this stunning film came out from the studio you would least expect it from.

Directed by visionary Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, based on a story by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, John P. Ryan and Rebecca De Mornay, this was a visceral, pulsating and utterly unforgettable action drama about escaped prisoners trapped on a train in which the driver has died.

Such was the damage done by Golan and Globus at this time that even this near masterpiece didn’t gain them any traction within the Hollywood set. The two refused to ‘play’ the Hollywood game and suffered the consequences as a result.

Cannon Films were to try continually to gain respect within the Hollywood community, accumulating some expensive flops along the way, such as John Frankenheimers “52 Pick-Up” and the criminally underrated 1987 film “Barfly”, directed by Frenchman Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.

 

10. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) Directed by Sidney J. Furie

Superman IV The Quest For Peace

The absolute nadir of how Golan and Globus cut corners and what lead to the end of Cannon Films.

The fourth in the Superman series, this was originally budgeted at $32 Million dollars. However, Golan and Globus literally cut that in almost half, reducing the budget to $17 Million at the last minute in an attempt to stop haemorrhaging costs of the studio due to a multitude of other films that flopped at the box office.

In regards to “Superman IV”, the results on screen were abysmally cheap and an insult to fans of the series. Not surprisingly, it sank like a stone at the box office. It also pretty much killed off the series for nearly two decades on the big screen, until Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” was made in 2006.

 

 

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  • HPL

    You forgot “Love Streams” by John Cassavetes!

  • Veronica Clarke

    Got a soft spot for ‘Lifeforce’, I must admit – it’s a lot of fun.

  • Michael D. Okum

    This is an awesome list. Most younger viewers are likely to have never heard of these titles… But as you say some of them are definitely worth the price of admission — my favorite being “Lifeforce” — Totally Under-rated Cult Cinema!

  • Ted Wolf

    Great list! Golan & Globus provided drive-in fare for my youth and I actually saw many of these films on a big screen.