Warning: watching this documentary about the history of Cannon films will almost certainly lead to you spending hours watching terrible 80’s action movies.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
You may have heard Paul Field recommend a documentary during last week’s podcast called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. It tells a rather comprehensive tale exploring the rise and demise of Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus; two infamous and incredibly ambitious film makers who came to Hollywood, conquered Hollywood and … promptly left Hollywood. It was on Paul’s recommendation that I recently gave it a whirl and now I’m urging you to do the same!
Between them, Golan & Globus were responsible for over 200 films – probably even less than half of which you might have heard of before! Whilst watching the documentary, I was ticking off my bingo card listing the films of theirs I’d seen. Chances are, if you’ve ever seen a Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson film from the 1980’s, it will have been produced by one or both of the cousins.
Got dusty old copies of Missing In Action, Delta Force or Invasion USA in your attic? Check. Ever seen a Death Wish sequel on ITV4’s late night rotation? Yep, that was them. What about virtually any film from the 80’s with ‘ninja’ in the title, including most of those featuring the legendary Shô Kosugi? Tick, tick, tick. How about Masters of the Universe, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Cyborg, Invaders from Mars, Bloodsport, the 1990 version of Captain America?? The list goes on and on. If it cost a lot to produce, earned very little back in the box office, and was made in the 80’s, you’ll probably find Manahem and/or Yoram’s name listed in the credits eventually.
Complete with interviews from the likes of Sybil Danning, Tobe Hooper, Diane Franklin, Alex Winter, Michael Dudikoff, Franco Nero, Albert Pyun, Dolph Lundgren, David Engelbach, Boaz Davidson and plenty of others, the talking heads in this feature do not hold back in telling everyone what exactly they thought about their time at Cannon. Most of the them affectionately looking back at the things they can’t believe they got away with – or didn’t get away with, as the case may be. Anecdotes about funds being raised for films as the ideas are made up literally on the spot by Manahem at Cannes, or writers having their scripts completely re-written during production, films being churned out in a matter of weeks from conception to print. It really does sound as wild as the title would have you believe.
There’s an attempt by writer and director Mark Hartley to explain exactly where things might have gone wrong for Cannon. Although no individual excuse is painted as the sole reason for the collapse of the prolific studio, certain aspects are consistently alluded to. Prominently featured among these theories is the fact that being from Israel, Manahem and Yoram were always outsiders in Hollywood. They were the foreigners who didn’t understand the American idioms or fit into the culture of having to schmooze your way to the top at fancy parties or tennis clubs if you really wanted to get anywhere in the business. What makes them both endearing characters is the fact it genuinely comes across as though all they really wanted to do, no matter what stage of their career they were at, was simply make films. It’s a sincere affection for cinema that makes them both such interesting characters. The kind of people you don’t expect to really exist in the cut throat economic world of the high level motion picture production line.
However, somewhat conversely, another theory proffered is that they sacrificed quality for quantity in their efforts to stay afloat. Movies were being made day by day on the money made from potential future pictures. There’s a quote in Electric Boogaloo where Yoram, the more down to earth of the two, revealed his concerns during their peak that they owe the bank $5m. Manahem’s response? To express his dismay that they didn’t owe $10m! Their solution to most problems seemed to be throwing more money at it; sometimes money that they just didn’t have. Frugality didn’t appear to be in their nature.
Take, for example, their plan to ride out their wane in the mid-late eighties. In 1985, Stallone starred in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and then Rocky IV, before appearing in Cobra the following year. Already an Oscar nominated writer and director for Rocky a decade before, now the go-to action star, he was a legitimately huge box office draw. Despite repeated attempts by Cannon to get him into their pictures, including his agent rebuffing $12m, in 1987, Sly finally relented and earned a whopping $14m for his part in the arm-wrestling-come-road-trip movie Over The Top. Fourteen. Million. Dollars! It was an unprecedented amount that he couldn’t refuse and was basically Cannon’s last ditch attempt to go all in as they tried to rescue themselves. Hoping some of Stallone’s success would rub off on them, it nearly worked as the film made quite a bit of money, although just $2m more than they paid Stallone and never actually broke even unfortunately.
But as Hartley explores, this epitomised their approach to film making at that time. No longer were they making daring raunchy films, inserting crude nudity simply to ensure a return on their investment (sex does indeed sell, after all) but trying to refine their product for specific audiences. Which is also another reason offered up as to where things started to go wrong. To put it bluntly, they weren’t good film makers. Passionate, sure. Keenly driven, undoubtedly. Relatively talented, enough to put out a feature film in their home country that people flocked to see, absolutely. But the turning point in their lives, buying Cannon Group and starting a partnership with the distributor MGM, may have been the beginning of their own downfall. As they attempted to up their game, producing more and more pictures with higher budgets and of supposedly a higher standard, their lack of awareness and quality was highlighted ten-fold. Seeing and listening to the former head of MGM at the time, Frank Yablans, during this segment of the documentary, it seems that bitterness towards Cannon over the “garbage” that he had to try and distribute had not dissipated over time.
In fact, Yablans is one of only a handful of people in Electric Boogaloo who seems unable to look back at this period and laugh about it. Laurene Landon is another who seems to despise the company still for the way they treated the crew on America 3000. Others seem to aim their gun at different people involved in production, such as Robin Sherwood’s stories about her time working with the man widely acknowledged as a genuinely humongous dickhead, Michael Winner, on the set of Death Wish II. It seems that if there’s a criticism of Menahem and Yoram’s approach, it was the little-to-no protection they afforded their cast and stars. There were no guarantees that promises would be fulfilled (I sincerely hope that Dudikoff’s Spider-Man is eventually released in some format or another), never mind ensuring stuff they didn’t have time for, like Actors Union standards, would actually be met on set.
It would have been the icing on the extraordinarily bizarre and hugely entertaining cake if Golan & Globus appeared on screen together to defend their actions. Alas, with Menahem Golan passing away last year, there is no longer the opportunity for him to do so. At least, not directly. Alternatively, you could always check out last year’s The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, a documentary that they produced themselves as an attempt to tell the story in their own words. A film hilariously released in competition with Electric Boogaloo, mimicking production on their old films that they released in competition with other studios, such as their most financially successful film Breakin’ and its rivalry with Beat Street.
If nothing else though, watching the riveting story of Cannon in Electric Boogaloo will give you a wave of nostalgia as you find out the true history of some terrible films from your youth. Or if you’re anything like me, it will leave you trawling through Netflix looking for which region you can watch classics like American Ninja on. (That’s UK Netflix, for what it’s worth.)
Electric Boogaloo was released right here in the UK earlier this month and is available to rent from most VOD services.