By Nathan Garden
Watching Gung-Ho! bares a ghastly resemblance to the binge of one failing to cope with a mid-life crisis. After the first few quiet drinks you still have the strength and presence of mind to put a brave face on things and convince yourself that everything might be okay. But before long the horror of the situation prevails, your fragile spirit is broken and you resort to the only path left open to you…
Darkness falls, day breaks, you pry open your swollen, bloodshot eyes, and slowly wake up to the most aggressive, most severe and torturous hangover of your life, shrouded in the stench of vomit and plagued forevermore by last night’s terrible errors. You then amble around trying discover what has happened but can only deduce that your dignity has been compromised, that your reputation is tarnished, and those who used to know and love you now finally see you for the pathetic, degenerate ignoramus that you are. And now that it’s over, now that you have been expelled from the troubled sanctuary of sleep and booted out of the house, all you can do is tearfully stagger through the world of the living, begging for help from disgusted strangers, your stomach, heart and bowels creaking under the pressure, your eyes rolling backwards into your head and every joint and muscle turning into melting rubber, as if at any moment you will finally capitulate to the onslaught and collapse from malnutrition and unhappiness.
And yet, as bad as it all sounds, this analogy is not quite enough to convey the damage one can do to oneself by sitting through this accursed, ignominious travesty.
When I think back to all the ideas I have seen realised on screen, the premise of a team of American marines sent on a rescue mission during World War II-era Japan, only to stumble upon an ensemble of enormous monsters, is comfortably among the worst. It will take a great deal of time and inner strength to explain everything, but bear with me…
At the outset, our protagonists are deployed to rescue an American POW. Suspecting that they were sent with an ulterior purpose, however, they then follow hints and clues to piece together a bigger picture. Gunfights with bi-planes and scenes of the squadron gallivanting into combat with the monster horde are craned in whenever the conspiracy needs spruced up, but for the most part you can only watch and wait for answers as they eavesdrop on generals plotting around a colour-coded atlas, find deflated Zeppelins in abandoned bases and submarines hidden in the sewers of Nagasaki. While many of these teasers simply vanish, others linger on the periphery like buzzards waiting for the ultimate prey (the plot) to finally give up and die. And die it does…
After being captured, the platoon come face to face with the Japanese high command who confide to them that not only did they attack Pearl Harbour because they were trying to destroy an aquatic, ice-breathing monster which they had pursued across the Pacific (why they share this information after three years of warfare and not before attacking Pearl Harbour in the first place, and how America has not noticed any other such creatures in the meantime, is never explained), but the only way to save their country is to nuke the diverging sets of monsters, one wreaking havoc on Nagasaki, the other on the march to Hiroshima. Hence, with the help of secret codes memorised by the escapee, they radio their American counterparts overseas who charitably offer to deploy nuclear weapons on Japanese soil! Gung-Ho! then ends as both friends and foes are atomised while tearful sea captains look on from the safety of the top deck with their caps pressed to their chests in honour of the brave Yanks who fought against their monster oppressors.
Now, it might sound like the worst thing you have ever heard but, abrupt and damnably lazy as it is, this ending may well be the best decision the screenwriter has ever made. A controversial claim, I know, but bear with me…
As one might guess from his open-doors policy with regards to plot and structure, within fifty minutes he has already thrown his fishing line so far out from the shore that he cannot possibly reel it back in for all the pollution he has released into the water. To put it more frankly, Gung-Ho! has become a machine with every cog gnawing into cables, geysers of sparks spurting out of air vents, and every chimney gagging with steam and coughing up gobbets of oil. There is simply no way to fix a break-down like this, nothing the screenwriter can do to wrangle his way out of trouble. Except, of course, killing everything to do with the film, which, by the time this ‘solution’ presents itself, seems like the greatest idea you have ever heard. The only thing wrong with it is that it is an hour and forty minutes overdue.
Now that we have observed the macro problem of the plot, let’s look at the multiple macro problems of the dialogue.
Mark my words, there is hardly a moment in the whole script which does not make you rigid with unease. For the good of your health, I will try to spare all but a few further details, because not only are there reams of unthinkable sop (“God damn it, I miss my momma. I miss her even more than pussy”), insensible plot devices (including but certainly not limited to a Japanese pilot reading out the coordinates of a secret base over the radio in perfect English), but a few dollops of bogus humour. At least, that is what I assume the screenwriter intended with conversations about the plight of the sumo groupie and the “Can cats meow with a Japanese accent?” exchange. All things considered, with Gung-Ho! now on his conscience, I think the screenwriter was better off where they found him: snoring in the gutter outside his boarded-up pizza carry-out.
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s get one thing straight: if we are working to a scale where Nero vs Cleopatra is at the bottom, Gung-Ho!’s CGI monsters aren’t actually too bad. Not good, or convincing, but not bad. The real problem is that the bleary-eyed photography makes everything look as if it was filmed through an oily gauze, so that rather than being swept away by imaginative, weird and wonderful set-pieces, you must pinch your nose and hold your breath through several reels of smoggy, poorly-edited, turbid tripe.
Low-budget TV parodies have better photography, and much better acting: after this, the lead cast won’t have the billing to ask for money on the street. It’s true, we are not supposed to like the characters because they are brash, trigger-happy thugs. But we are supposed to sympathise when their buddies get killed, and they absolutely must endear us to share their fear about the ominous clues they are following. Otherwise, why should we care? Why should we invest? It is just our rotten luck, however, that they are a boy’s club of greasy, cackling vermin whose depiction of despair amounts to wiping their nose and gawking at the camera with a face like a sad potato, and whose grief at the death of their captain is to slap their forehead and squeal like a seal. But things become even worse again once it has been confirmed that the lighting department were paid in magic beans, the sound department was ran out of a burger van and the costume department ran out of money even before they swindled their boxes of fraying jeans and sweaty vests from a Salvation Army clearance sale.
How can any film possibly be so unkempt as to look like this? How can every department be so starved that every last frame is an eyesore? These are but the first of many of life’s big questions that I just do not have the courage to answer.
Gung-Ho! has been presented as a war film, but you’d be well within your rights to query this. ‘What about the monsters?’ you say. ‘What about the enchanted statuettes? What of the gluttonous disaster movie set-pieces?’ These are all very good questions, but I must admit the short-comings of my evidently very limited expertise, ignorant as I am of what genre, if any, this film belongs to. I am simply not qualified to answer. So let’s ask Gung-Ho! itself. Or perhaps we’d better not, because I doubt it would be able to give you a straight answer if you asked whether it was a war film or a kamikaze espionage thriller, supernatural adventure, a monster romp, or even the clanking proto-type of a brand spanking new genre which doesn’t yet have its paperwork in order. In a more perfect world, it might even have been a caper. But perhaps I’m being hostile. Perhaps I’m rushing into this with my knives already sharpened. So let’s take a breather and look at this quandary from a different angle…
Blurring the lines between genres is an admirable aspiration because, assuming it is handled skilfully, it can reflect the versatility of the medium itself: a shape-shifting, time-bending chameleon with endless permutations and potential. Although tinged with the risks of excess and indecision, in its happiest moments this malleability can offer a far more permissive and colourful range of possibilities for the story the film-makers want to tell.
What we have with Gung-Ho!, however, is a pick-pocketing, hybrid doofus trying to thieve as many motifs as it can fit in a body bag, without a clue what to do with any of them and no idea how to meld them into its own, terrible designs. We can take one glimmer of sadistic satisfaction from the fact that it can’t go two minutes without dropping its pile of smuggled goods and skidding down a flight of stairs, but the rush is over almost immediately. No, I’m afraid there is absolutely no fun to be had once we are reminded that we are looking at the victim of an infamous transplant experiment with floppy arms and legs welded on the wrong way round and patches of skin stapled all over its face, the defunct remains of a dozen genres sewn onto a fleshy stump with a host of bleeping life-support contraptions plugged into its brain. Such a soul is in no condition to answer questions about anything.
But why is all this so inordinately, so inexpressibly bad? Sure, Gung-Ho! is chock-full of poorly-assembled set pieces. Yes, the dialogue is loaded down with stupid quips and catchphrases. By way of characters, it has decrepit caricatures. But so what? There are dozens of classic war films which rack up brownie points on goofiness rather than grittiness, so why not indulge? It would certainly be in good company, it has no pretensions to historical fact, and makes no attempt to hide any of its questionable stunts and gimmicks from fans and pernickety critics. It is a loud and proud, warts-and-all showpiece which, rather than heeding cautionary warnings, is simply too noisy to let you get a word in.
So perhaps Gung-Ho!’s crusade against convention and constraint does show off the potential of the medium after all: it certainly skews the archetypal war film well beyond recognition, and if we have a problem with this, we should have known from the start that no film can hope to succeed in such an endeavour without stomping into alien territory. And we must tip our hats to its bravery, because Gung-Ho! soldiers on regardless of where it ends up, blissfully and utterly disinterested in whether we like it or not. But trust me, we don’t. In fact, all you can do is shudder in your seat like someone belted into an electric chair for a crime they didn’t commit, your face stiffening with an expression of appalled disillusionment as you become more and more confused and upset. But never half as confused and upset as the creators, whose idea of resolving a plot is to nuke every character when things get too complicated.
What can be done against an enemy so malevolent and cruel? By now I do not have the strength to answer. But maybe history is on its side. Maybe one day Gung-Ho! will be exalted as just the kind of happy-go-lucky lightning strike the genre needed and welcomed into the hallowed golden hall of cult favourites. But I doubt it. Surely the only cult awaiting Gung-Ho! is the kind that ties up unwelcome strangers by their hair and eats them alive. No, this grandiose turd will find friends neither among war film aficionados nor monster movie suckers: only life-long foes who will take one contemptuous look and spend the rest of their days hounding it over the horizon with pitchforks and flaming torches.