1987 Week: ‘Superman IV’ and ‘Miami Connection’ reflect heightened global tensions

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

All throughout 1987 Week, Vanyaland film editor Nick Johnston will be looking back fondly at a year that happened three years before he was born, and taking a critical eye to some of the worst and best films of that year. Today we have two films about the necessity for World Peace, perhaps brought upon by the heightened nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the USSR: The tragically bad ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,’ and the so-bad-it’s-a-masterpiece martial arts rock and roll spectacular ‘Miami Connection’.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

For those worrying that the superhero movie is clogging up the multiplex with garish bullshit week after week that’s going to inevitably kill the American cinema, remember that we both survived 3-D and the YA adaptation swamp on our way to this magic moment. Years ending in the number ‘7’ have typically been bad for superhero movies, at least in the mainstream consciousness, and it’s been that way since the ‘77 Spider-Man TV movie hit the airwaves. That’d be followed a decade later with the subject of today’s flashback, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and in ‘97 by Batman and Robin, and in ‘07 by Spider-Man 3. We’ve had pretty good luck so far this year, so quit whining and join me in remembering what true awfulness looks like and what it looks like to rend an iconic franchise for a few easy bucks.

No one really wanted a fourth Christopher Reeve-starring Superman film, aside from a few die-hard fans, Reeve himself, and the producers who made great amounts of money off of each of them. Up until this film, that had meant the Salkinds, the producers of the prior three films in the series, who had left the franchise after the underperformance of Superman III. The rights were then given to the Cannon Group, who, if you know anything about trash cinema, you probably already know what their name being attached to a science fiction/fantasy project means.

For those unaware, Cannon started out as an importer and distributor of trashy softcore European porn films in the ‘60s and began to make their way into production over the years. They had a number of incredible successes in the B-action circuit with films like the Delta Force series and the Missing in Action films, and they’d produce a number of classics over the years, including the Bukowski biopic Barfly and Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear. Well, at least they did right up until 1987, when they placed bets on a number of bad eggs, including the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Masters of the Universe and a film we’ll be talking about later this week, the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling family drama Over the Top.

Superman was a victim of the financial woes plaguing the studio — an initial budget of over $30 million dollars wound up being slashed by very close to half of that — and it shows miserably. The crew chafed under the budget restrictions, and you can tell it by watching the final product. The gorgeous effects of the Richard Donner era were long-gone, and now, now you couldn’t believe a man could fly.

It might have been fine had the script been there. It’s an easy enough plot, featuring Superman going up against Lex Luthor and fighting an evil clone that Luthor had created for a profit, and it could have been done well! There are wonderful touches straight out of the Silver Age of comics that this film plays with, such as Superman gathering up all of the world’s nuclear weapons in a giant net and hurling them into the sun, but they’re few and far in between. Not very much about the plot makes sense, and scenes are often teased in the worst way before being totally abandoned, and you can nearly see the tape holding together the butchered final cut. A significant portion of the film was cut out prior to its release, including the fact that our superpowered villain — the Nuclear Man — was actually Luthor’s second attempt at creating such a being, and there was an entire planned sequence of the Man of Steel fighting the initial version, which resembled his comic-book antagonist Bizarro, a sort-of “opposite day” version of Superman from another world, and that scene wouldn’t see the light of day for nearly 20 years.

In a revelation that might not totally shock you, they’re absolutely horrendous, and it’s easy to understand why Cannon, even in their drug-fueled ecstasies, would realize that they’d made a terrible choice. And this logic applies to the rest of the film: Have a question? There’s probably a shitty deleted scene that will explain all of it to you lying on some DVD out there in the ether. And even then, the absence of those scenes can’t explain the boring malaise that hangs over the whole damn film like a fog.

It didn’t help that few involved wanted to be there, aside from Reeve and director Sidney J. Furie. Hackman had taken to a comfortable cycle of appearing in drek for that cash money and then redeeming himself later on with a quality performance in something worthy of his effort (the cycle had reset after he’d starred in 1986’s Hoosiers, which is alluded to at a point in the film), and he’s just doing the same boring schtick he did as Lex Luthor eight years earlier, as he’d sat out Superman III for whatever reason. Hackman’s paired with a young Jon Cryer, who basically is what happens if you combined Otis from the previous films with the worst ideas a producer has about the ’80s youth and added cyanide for good measure. Kidder had seen better days, and had missed out on much of the previous film seemingly due to her public criticism of the Salkinds, but she was back for a significantly larger role this time around. She herself was nine years away from having a widely-circulated psychotic episode and a near-total career implosion from the fallout of that event. She doesn’t totally look well here — she seems both distracted and bored with the material — and the attempts to play her off new-rival Mariel Hemingway don’t work very well, because both actresses are failed by the writing. Comedic sequences of them fighting over the love of Superman/Clark Kent don’t totally work and take up a not-insignificant portion of the runtime.

Yet Reeve’s considerable presence as the Man of Steel continuously gives this mediocrity a deep melancholy, especially thirty-odd years removed from the critical consensus and with a significant amount of history behind it. The anti-nuclear proliferation plot was certainly a contribution of his to the plotline, and his speech at the end of the film feels remarkably genuine, and he embodies the sense of truth and justice that so defines the character and with the gusto and earnestness that that statement would need to sound honest. Those, in fact, would be his final words as Superman. Reeve would never again portray the character, for more reasons than the obvious one — we were only two years out from Tim Burton’s earthquaking blockbuster Batman, which would reinvent the character in the public consciousness and take him from a campy TV star to a bona fide black-suited badass — and the Donner interpretation of Superman, rooted deeply in golden age comics and 1970’s poptimism, had no place in a modern world like 1989.

Then, of course, came the tragic reason: Reeve’s full paralysis following a horseback-riding accident in 1995 that left him wheelchair-bound and his body a shell of its former self. Each of the other Superman films found ways to distract from the horror that awaited its star at the end of the run — Donner’s original remained a bloated classic, Lester’s comedy and iconography endured, even if there was a precipitous drop in quality between the second and third installments — but The Quest for Peace offers no such delight in its stead, and succumbs under that weight and under its own crushing mediocrity.

Miami Connection

The fact that I’m recommending the Richard Park-directed, Grandmaster Y. K. Kim-starring Miami Connection, and the fact that I’d probably place it in my top 10 favorite movies of the year, over stuff like Babette’s Feast or Au Revoir Les Enfants or House of Games probably should disqualify me from writing about movies altogether. But I honestly love this movie with every fiber of my being, mainly because of how utterly wonderful and bizarre it is, and I’m not going to write too much about it aside from providing the requisite amount of information that you need to run to Netflix and watch it as soon as possible with a group of friends and a healthy supply of beer. You’ll be humming the soundtrack for weeks after you watch Miami Connection, it’ll make you want to learn Tae Kwon Do, and it’ll fuck you up with its earnest pleading for the eradication of violence all around the world.

What’s it about, you ask? Well, it’s about a band called Dragon Sound (cheesy in the best way, like all great embodiments of their era) that are actually a group of Tae Kwon Do masters, who have to defeat a group of cocaine-importing ninjas that are ruining their wonderful city.

Yeah, it’s awesome, and though it might not be the best film of 1987, it’s perhaps the most entertaining from start to finish, intentionally or not. But I bet you’ll go into this thinking that you’re going to laugh spitefully at it, and you probably will for the first half-hour, and then you’ll find out that you’re grooving on similar wavelengths, and by the end, you’ll actually admit to yourself that you’re really enjoying it for what it is. Miami Connection is just that good at what it does.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for a look at two more films, this time about the struggles of being a parent.

Featured Superman IV image courtesy of MovieStillsDB.