RIORI Presents Installment #185: Jonathan Frakes’ “Thunderbirds” (2004)



The Players…

Bill Paxton, Brady Corbett, Anthony Edwards, Soren Fulton, Sophia Myles, Vanessa Hudgens and Ben Kingsley, with Deobia Oparel and Ron Cook.


The Basics…

If there’s a local emergency you call the first responders. Fire fighters, police officers, EMTs. If there’s a national emergency you call on FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross. But who do you call when it’s a global emergency? A catastrophe so huge that no ordinary rescue team could get the job done?

Well, if you have that problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team International Rescue.

Thunderbirds are go!


The Rant…

Okay. I got one for you. Pull up a chair.

You ever get tuned into a culty pop culture hoo-ha by accident…in reverse?

I’m not talking a straight line like some Beatlemaniac from the 60s who not only has all the albums, singles and imports and proudly displays the framed, over the mantel, signed by Ringo vintage movie poster for A Hard Day’s Night. That kind of fandom is as common as COVID, and almost as communicable. No. I’m talking about a drunkard’s stagger backwards to the well, either out of curiosity, confusion or dumb accident. Usually all three.

Here’s an example, a theoretical one: say you’re some teen in the early 90s and got hip to this British singer/songwriter who went by the name of Sting. Silly name. His music was jazzy and rocky and sounded good to you. Curiosity piqued, you logged on the Net and surfed Lycos (early 90s, remember?) about all things Sting. Won a few Grammys, did some human rights work with Amnesty International and did a little acting on the side (and the less you found out about that the better). Also turned out the guy fronted this big deal new wave act back in the late 70s. Huh. Dig his new stuff, what’s the old stuff like?

Boom. A Police fan in borne. Like so many mushrooms.

Now I always dug The Police as a kid, and most of Gordo’s jazz/funk/rock solo work was pretty cool also (I gave up after his Ten Summoner’s Tales, and Sting should have, too). When I got into a musician, I did my homework and sought out back catalogs, and was more pleased than confused. When I did get confused over pop culture scavenging it was a rare occurrence, mostly because it was both by accident and rare. The cult stuff. And I’m talking deeper than Joy Division, the Sega Saturn or Octavia E Butler. Sometimes when you walk backwards far enough long enough you find yourself once you’ve backtracked forwards again.

Right. Bear with me. It’s been 185 installments. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

*crickets*

Anyway, Red, time to tumble down the rabbit hole. Never fear, I will get to the meat of the matter and how it relates to this week’s movie somehow.

While the 90s teen nascent Police fan was not me, the following 80s kid story was. Maybe you, too. Back before the cable networks took the baton, the major networks would give over their Saturday morning airtime for cartoons. From six in the morning to noon, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and adopted kid Nickelodeon was a Froot Loop chomping wonderland every Saturday. All cartoons, all morning long. Sometimes I think Spotify programmers took hints from Saturday morning programming in creating their playlist algorithms. There was a sh*tton of animated variety, and certain networks had certain themes. NBC had action. ABC had comedy. CBS has weird s/f/fantasy shows. FOX was FOX and Nick was green slime. I dug the NBC line-up. The penultimate shows were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and The Bugs ‘N’ Tweety Show. The first had Spidey teaming up with X-Men Iceman and Firestar to thwart the nefarious schemes of various Marvel baddies. The second was self-explanatory: an anthology of a few Looney Tunes shorts. Then came Soul Train so I could get hip to the newest rap stars. Afterwards the lawnmower waited, glowering at me. The usual Saturday.

When I got bored of the same old scene on the Big Four and Little Nicky, I aimed the remote onto the outer fringes; local affiliates that still had some say in what to air against the competitors but not so much to lose their backing. Namely syndicated sh*t. Not always a bad thing. I got my silly TMNT fix that way (as well as very early mean hangover Saturday mornings with The Tick. “Spoon!”), as I did the ulty-culty fave Inhumanoids and an informal introduction to anime.

Japanese animation. Admittedly that came about when I was in second grade watching bowdlerized versions of Space Battleship Yamato and GoLions! (Star Blazers and Voltron in the States, respectively), but I dug it. Other anime warped snuck its way onto the local airwaves as well. G-Force, RoboTech, Tranzor-Z (violence uncut!) and other nuggets from across the Pacific that haplessly toppled onto my cable feed. Nowadays, anime has well saturated American pop culture. Still on the fringes, mostly due to the fact cosplayers dressed as Rei from Evangelion outweigh Shizuku from Whisper Of the Heart by about two googolplex to…perhaps two. Japanese animation is a thing but still not a thing in Columbus. It was rattling around back in the 80s, and I happened upon it, even after I happened upon it.

Wait. Dig this. Digression. You ever hear of the psychological phenomenon cryptomnesia? It’s essentially deja vu in reverse. Instead of having a curious feeling of reliving a moment, a moment has a curious effect on your memory and somehow your brain figured it was your moment all along. If you ever heard about that silly plagiarism case regarding George Harrison accidentally cribbing the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” then you follow me. If not, Google it. I’ll wait.

*raids fridge for another popsicle*

Like that there. Back to the anime thing. There was some proto-indie animation block one on of the local stations. Upstart affiliates trying to cash in on the cult of Smurfs. It came out of New York and featured the 80s cartoon touchstones about cyber femme rocker Jem, the aforementioned Inhumanoids and some anime pastiche called—translated rather—Thunderbirds 2086. I hung around for a few episodes, curious about the staggering animation style and why the characters’ dialogue was so palsied, but their description of a family-operated S/F rescue team with their ultra cool (“a dazzling array”) mecha poked my brain. Why does this sound familiar? I was eight then, so I flipped the channel. A self-examined life and all.

Back around to Little Nicky. I was a big fan of the imported UK cartoons Nick used to air at the end of the day. DangerMouseBananamanCount Duckula and other giddiness. These were British cartoons and far shorter than the usual American 25 minutes. Those from across the Pond ran about 18 minutes, which invited some filler to bookend the commercials, like the occasional Monty Python animated piece (this was the 80s, remember) or a snippet from some TV serial revolving around globetrotters rendered in puppet form.

Wait a minnit…

Fast forward to fast backwards. Y’all remember that parody Team America: World Police by the lovely lads of South Park infamy, Matt Parker and Trey Stone? What rock have you been living under? It was a send up of Dubya’s foreign policy, but with marionettes, strings and all. I never saw it, but the trailers smacked me with some nostalgica (yes, I just made that term up). Where have I seen this kind of thing before?

If Carl Jung was right, and there is such a thing as a collective unconsciousness somehow my warped kiddie mind—from about age 8 to 24—through either Harrison’s creative ozone trip or that blip in my mind that was Thunderbirds 2086, somehow I learned about the original British Thunderbirds “supermarination” sci-fi show about International Rescue and their amazing mecha before we fledgling otaku knew was mecha meant. I think I caught it on Nick between DangerMouse episodes. Yeah, that’s it. I think.

So when the announcement of a big deal silver screen reel of Thunderbirds came along I was intrigued (I was 38 at the time. Late bloomer). All that childhood nostalgics came whizzing back. Holy crap, full circle! And this uber-obscure, card-carrying very cult show was getting the motion picture treatment. Stateside! With Bill Paxton! With Commander Riker directing! Pass the popcorn! Come under the knife of RIORI!

Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Good question. I’ll do my best to provide a fair answer. Nostalgia works in cycles. As we evolve into mature adults (like those who wear foam wedges of Swiss come opening day at Lambeau, bare-chested in a blizzard), we always look fondly upon our past. Our childhood. The salad days without worrying about taxes and traffic and insurance premiums and salmonella and terrorism. The days of Saturday morning cartoons, technicolor cereal, Transformers and an already trimmed lawn. It’s nice to be reminded as a grown-up with a surprise like a fond, albeit odd memory of days gone by…even through a tricky trail like Marty McFly followed to get his erstwhile dad getting laid and being rewarded for it.

More nostalgia? You bet. Hold on to those moments. Work awaits in the morn and a Stauffer’s microwave dinner in the eve. Things are just fine now.


 The Story…

Whenever’s there’s a rescue mission, most authorities call out the Coast Guard, or FEMA and perhaps the Red Cross also. People all over the country—maybe the planet—need help when the emergency is so dire not even the most modern technology and capable people can produce the Jaws of Life. That’s when the brave folks of International Rescue spring into action.

Jeff Tracy (Paxton) is an ex-astronaut and an industrial titan in the S&R game. From what he learned in his NASA days he’s designed the technology to  an ncredibly bleeding edge fleet of sophisticated vehicles designed to do what no ordinary rescue team can do: the impossible. From air, sea, land and even space, Tracy’s “Thunderbirds” are always vigilant and ready to take on any case.

Sounds like something out of a comic book, and Jeff’s youngest son Alan (Corbett) always has his eyes in the clouds, looking for his super dad and his super bros that round out the elite team. Alan’s too young to serve in his Dad’s proud service—not to mention Jeff is more than a little protective of his youngest son—but too bold to ignore his calling. Especially during algebra.

However…quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers themselves? Dun dun dunnn.

Unbeknownst to Jeff and the Tracy team, an old, yet unknown enemy calling himself The Hood (Kingsley) has a scheme of very serious purpose to ruin the Thunderbird team’s sterling record of world saving. Knock off the world banks by hijacking Tracy’s amazing machines to steal millions as well as ruining the Thunderbirds’ reputation without recompense.

So when Alan is home on spring break, and his dad and brothers are off-world, and the Thunderbirds fleet is ripe for the hijacking, and the nefarious Hood has some sort of mind control, and his schemes are deadly real, and only Alan has a rough concept how to keep the fleet intact, and cutie pie TinTin (Hudgens) has developed breasts, what’s he gonna do?

Make a Fully Acknowledged Broadcast hopefully his over-protective dad could hear:

“Are Thunderbirds a go?”


The Breakdown…

Blame nostalgia. Or blame a lot of silly, whiz-bang fun. We need more chewing gum like this.

Thunderbirds is not a good movie. The acting’s kinda wooden, the scheme is right out of Lex Luthor’s bag of tricks and you’re gonna have to have a very high suspension of disbelief to go along with this sci-fi/disaster/cartoon come to life bat out of hell. Never fear though, True Believers. It’s all in good fun. Here’s the extra huge tub of fresh popcorn. Nom nom nom.

Despite that the original Thunderbirds programme was a British space opera with a cast of puppets, and the 80s incarnation was essentially an anime rip-off of that, the big screen adaptation here is a big, garish, winking cartoon come to life. Sometimes, now and again, once in a while we all need a megadose of some big, dumb, unapologetically over the top action flick to snuggle up with. Call in the Thunderbirds. Help is on the way.

Let’s get another key thing out of the way: there are precious redeeming aspects to Thunderbirds. That’s part of its charm. There’s a ton of winking and nudging informing us that this is silly, fun and far, far away from winning any awards. It’s also a clever film, always alluding to the original puppeteer’d vision of the Anderson’s creation in the swinging 60s. You might not get it, especially if you never went up the rabbit hole like I tried to explain…poorly. All in all overall, its a live-action cartoon. The kind ready made for the Disney Channel or folks who dig Scooby-Doo (like me, who has no shame). Quit grumping and lighten up or else the beatings will commence.

The key here to enjoying this flick is like with all good stand-up comedy its timing, a kind of pacing that depends on luck and where to use it. As a action/adventure family film directed by Number One we should go play connect the dots. Scene moves effortlessly to next scene with a new trouble Alan and crew get into. It’s kinda like a platformer video game (think the MegaMan series). As for the lucky timing, yeah it’s scripted, duh, but happenstance pops up again and again at just the right spots in the story, furthering the admittedly flimsy narrative. We see it all coming a mile away, but the direction pumps along at a pace that propels a “saw that coming” sensibility, but also says, “Let’s see what happens next.”

Thunderbirds could have easily descended into absolute schlock if it wasn’t for that winking and off-kilter delivery. A sense of goofiness pervades the movie, but not so much to dilute the action. Hell, and even the solid action scenes are cartoony—right out of Looney Tunes—like when TinTin takes out the bad guys with the Firefly. All the action is goof-tastic (IE: Every time Lady P laid a punch I could hear Mike Myers as Austin Powers bleat, “Judo chop!”) from diminutive Ron Cook and his pratfalls to Deobia Oparel cackling like Count Chocula and then getting a face full of bees. And it’s irresistible, because it’s all so ridiculous you just have to give in to it all and enjoy the ride. Hell, you already streamed it. Face the consequences.

I like the story device of the kids rescuing the parents. So sue me. Consider flicks like The Goonies. Or Spy Kids. Or even the first Iron Eagle, for Pete’s sake. The dynamic helps to establish that family action feel, which director Frakes must’ve known was Thunderbirds‘ backbone. Even though all of the acting is Marxist (Groucho, that is) in style, you can’t shake that the solid bonds of family and friends will always help you ride out any storm. If only in real life that was so easy, but to quote Paul Simon: that’s why God made the movies. Jeff and his sons don’t take a second thought to go help Off-World John. Lady P and Parker waste no time in aiding their adopted Thunderbird family. Most of all the—dare I say—sweet father/son relationship that nerdy Brains has with his wunderkind Fermat. All that also assures you that no matter how much Jeff and Alan don’t see eye to eye you know all will be all right in the end. You know that, but the anticipation’s fun nonetheless. It’s a very minor league version of how Ron Howard built tension for his Apollo 13. We already knew the astronauts got home safely. It’s the thrill/mystery of that coming down. We know everything will be okay in the end with Thunderbirds. Just sit back and enjoy the ride already.

That means we gotta ride along with a very motley cast of players, some of whom seem violently out of place and all the better for it. I reiterate: not all movies are designed to win awards. Not even a Razzie. That being said, Thunderbirds received absolutely zero Nick Kids’ Choice Awards for acting (I checked. None). You must look at this snubbing within the proper context. The film is a silly, revisionist live action cartoon. Of course the cast is supposed to be ciphers, caricatures and over the top. It’s no surprise that the late, lamented Bill Paxton makes even the fluffiest of films great, but he’s more or less relegated to the sidelines for most of this ball of wax. I already mentioned the kids saving the day—when done right, and it wasn’t all bad here—was A-number one plot point here, and Brady and company do their best to keep its PG firmly in cheek. The trio are trademark nonentities; stereotypes the world over we recognize in any family flick. No more, no less. It works, though since the action is seamless and their patois is what you’d expect: teen insecurity against a serious matter. We’ve all been there and maybe still are. This crap works on a basal level, with nary a SAG nod to be seen. I repeat, just go with it.

As for the supporting cast, they all have their moments to shine, but five stars and a bouquet to Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner then and unashamed to ham it up now. You could see he truly had fun playing the bad guy/slumming it up here, a graduate of the Jim Kirk School of Drama and Scenery Chewing. His Hood smirks, cracks dopey one-liners, makes fun of his role and delighting in basically f*cking around. You want to be the antagonist in family film? Go for clownish and mustache-twirling spouting Shakespeare. Kingsley was the penultimate best thing about Thunderbirds, save Ron Cook’s Parker and he’s quite the other thing. Plus, Kingsley’s Hood wears a kimono! What else do you need?

Again, Thunderbirds‘ pacing falls right into the butter zone. The story bounces along at a friendly clip. No scenes heavy with drama or pithy monologues. No room for that claptrap. On a serious note, the movie was excellently framed, very efficient in telling the story where each scene of action was bookended by scheming how to escape this mess and get into the next. I heard that Star Trek alum Jon Frakes is regarded as such an economical director—most likely as his CV cites him for his TV direction experience over cinema—he earned the nickname “Two Takes Frakes.” I like that. It means he steers the movies along the swiftest current so the cast won’t get all fatigued. His work reflects this, as our cast never get overwrought and just keeps on being silly.

Right, so call this one a guilty pleasure. My girl’s a big Bill Paxton fan (yet she has never seen Weird Science. Hmm) and bought the disc off Amazon to watch it with me knowing I’m a big Bill Paxton fan. Too bad he didn’t get much screen time, but but I guessed his gung-ho Jeff Tracy schtick wouldn’t fit in well with the silliness of Thunderbirds. So there you have it.

Did I mention the silliness of the movie?

Oh, and by the way, the movie sure respected the TV show’s legacy. For a taste of the first original episode click here.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Again, did I mention the silliness part? You need this movie to kill some time. It’s very good at that.


The Musings…

  • “Who will rescue the rescuers?”
  • The opening credits are very clever. Almost like a primer for the uninformed.
  • The CGI holds up well here, especially since this is a cartoon.
  • “My Achilles’ heel is my Achilles’ heel!”
  • Very rousing score.
  • Lady P’s ride is a custom Ford Thunderbird. Get it?
  • “Fu-fu-fu-noo way!”
  • BTW, did the producers get any flak from the PC police for the stuttering?
  • “I did…”
  • That and The Hood’s psychic powers were never really explained away.
  • “You just can’t save everyone…”
  • Ron Cook looks like a ripe plum tomato ready to pop. Speaking of which…
  • “I love it when your checkered past becomes useful.” Lady P got the best lines.
  • Didja notice all the Tracy sons were named after astronauts (EG, Virgil was Gus Grissom’s real first name. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit Earth, not unlike John Tracy’s HALO in Thunderbird 5)?
  • “That’s quite enough losing for one day!”

The Next Time…

“Smash an hour glass, grab the sand, take his hands and cuff ’em,
Spin around to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ’em.
Cinderella Man…”

I’d like to believe that boxer James Braddock would’ve been an Eminem fan.


 

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