Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: JEWEL OF THE GODS (1988)

I’m sure there have been good films made in South Africa. I mean, it’s a law of averages thing. Science doesn’t lie, right?

After the international success of THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY (1980) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and subsequently Cannon’s KING SOLOMON’S MINES (1985), if you were a South African film mogul and were sitting around for three years waiting for the fluorescent bulb above your head to flicker to life, what would you come up with? Well it’s obvious, get the cast from THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY and put them in a ramshackle knock-off of KING SOLOMON’S MINES and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK! This forehead slapper was so ingenious that it could only be foiled by one thing: bad production and bad script. Ok, two things: bad production, bad script and lack of budget. Ok, three things! Bad production, bad script, lack of budget and horrible acting. Four things! Oh, never mind…

Set during an unspecified point during WWII, JEWEL OF THE GODS starts out with a bang, literally! A white guy in a safari getup clandestinely takes pictures of a native sacrifice (bizarrely set to cheery steel drum music) in which a witchdoctor perched atop a boulder wields a jerry-rigged bat-head crucifix with a purple gem set in the middle. The witchdoctor holds it up and a purple laserbeam shoots out of the gem and causes the sacrificial victim to explode! Dude, this totally has to rule, right?

The basic cruxt of the plot is the hunt for the fabled “Purple Diamonds” (yes, that’s the best name they could come up with) which are purported to be in the fabled Mines of King Solomon. The Nazis figure they would be invincible with an army wielding the gems, the British send their… ummm, not-so best, agent out to foil the German ambition and then there’s our Aussie Indy-wannabe, Snowy Grinder (Marius Weyers). Yes, someone thought that was a good heroic name.

Snowy has written a book on the subject and apparently this has led to several disappearances, this time of one Dr. Jim Hartwell. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking where’s the comic sidekick, man? Not to worry, we have one in the form of Archie (Taylor Negron’s long lost twin Joseph Ribeiro), a Calcutta-born, Texas-bred mechanical engineer who squeals like a girl while in danger and has moments of implied homosexuality. And wears an '80s foam baseball cap with a silk-screened picture of Texas... in the '40s. One character, three groups offended and time period anachronisms be dammed! That’s got to be a record. Anyway, Archie finds Snowy attempting to mine gold in a desert and when Snowy asks if he’s looking to get his copy of Snowy’s book autographed, Archie says “I don’t give a cow’s fuck for your autograph!” and explains that he wants Snowy’s help to find the lost Dr. Jim and shows him a purple diamond to prove that they exist. Of course Snowy is on this info like ugly on an ape.

Meanwhile, the Nazis discover Snowy’s book and hear tell that Archie knows someone who has a map to the fabled mines and it doesn’t take them too long to figure the pair can lead them to the purple diamonds. The running joke here is that Nazis bump their heads on things and commit painfully unfunny mixed-metaphors, such as “ze rolling stone catches ze early worm!” Oh, make it stop!

One Mr. Crow (Richard Cox) of special branch is also set out to find Snowy with the advice “chin up, don’t drink too much and don’t rape anyone important”. Yikes! Just like the warnings “do not drink” on windex bottles, if you have to say it, that means someone has done it. Moments like these pop-up every now and then and seem rather jarring against what is obviously trying to be an amiable, family-friendly adventure romp with bumbling Nazi stereotypes pulled straight out of “Hogan’s Heroes”. Matter of fact the movie is loaded with condescending stereotypes such as brothel owner Abdul (who looks like Roger E. Mosley in a fez) who is mad when the Nazis open fire on his boat because “this is costing me money!” Not to mention the fact that all the black characters are either loin-cloth clad spear-chuckers or are pigeon-English talking, wide-eyed, common clay of South Africa… you know… morons. In one scene where Snowy is at the Red Cross camp, he asks a patient where Dr. Hartwell’s room is. The patient looks confused so Snowy translates into coherent gibberish, “great white med’cine man, where he do dreaming?”, and is promptly pointed in the right direction.

As it turns out Mr. Crow is a mercenary and a black market dealer who wants to get the purple diamonds so he can sell them to the Nazis. He may wear a white suit, but Belloque he ain’t. He does however provide a rather uninteresting villain to chase around Snowy and Archie for a while, giving more opportunity for Archie to do his bug-eyed girly-screaming thing some more. By the time this is over you will be ready to club Archie like a baby seal, and that is long before the “hilarious” scenes where he falls asleep in a tree and dreams that the snake that is crawling on his arm is his lover’s caress only to awaken, screaming his head off to fall out of the tree into a pit filled with tarantulas… which he is scared of too, leading to more screaming. Seriously? Someone thought this would be funny? I wonder what the screenwriter was thinking when hammering out the script?

Snowy meets up with Dr. Hartwell only to find out that the doctor is *gasp* Ally Hartwell (Sandra Prinsloo)… a woman! What is the world coming to? Sheesh! They now let women play “doctor” with real people! God forbid we let them drive automobiles! Ally lets Snowy spend the night in her house, on the sofa, and clearly she has been in the bush too long as her attempt to seduce him consists of pretending to sleepwalk into the living room where she opens a book and the map to the mines falls out. Naturally Snowy, buying into Ally’s cheesy sleepwalking routine, ignores her silky negligee, jumps on the map and heads out to the mines in the morning with Archie and Ally in tow. Of course this is not before Ally gets gussied up in a gown to keep the commandant “busy” while Snowy sneaks around to get the lay of the land, so to speak (ummm... why didn't she try the evening gown and champagne trick on Snowy?). The Nazis now have the witchdoctor and his purple diamond crucifix and demonstrate its powers on an insolent Afrikaner (whose acting is so stunning that he is either a random farmer or a member of the crew). At this point our group decides to perform the raid at night as the purple diamonds are powerless in the dark as their lasers are created by sunlight!

As it turns out the “mine” is actually a high-tech, trap-laden installation ala OPERATION CONDOR (1991) and there is some musings that it might be of alien origin, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s simply the old favorite of cheap producers everywhere: an abandoned refinery. In an attempt to work in more “King Solomon’s Mines” plot devices, the witchdoctor gets in a slow, poorly choreographed fight with the presumed lost Dr. Jim causing the whole place to start exploding with purple lasers shooting everywhere. Wait, I thought the diamonds needed sunlight? Wtf? The group make their escape from the mine in a scene where they clearly wanted to do the mine car sequence from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1986), except that their mine car is freakin’ tiny, made of wood and you could easily catch up with it by simply walking. What follows is a scene in which some Nazis in a motorcycle and sidecar chase the truck containing our heroes at breakneck speeds of up to 10 miles an hour! Seriously, I really don’t like seeing chase sequences undercranked, but this is pretty embarrassing. The film ends with a direct rip-off of the train sequence from Cannon’s KING SOLOMON’S MINES right down to the dialogue “The train will stop”, “it’s not stopping”, “it has to stop!” Of course once on the train, the mimicry ends as presumably they didn’t have the funds to stage another action sequence.

There are a couple of interesting things about the film, not the least of which is the name of the gaffer, Fuzzy Skinner. One is that the cast is well versed stage actors. Sandra Prinsloo has the distinction of causing a political uproar in 1985 during a stageplay titled “Miss Julie” in which she caused the audience to walk-out on the production because she kissed a black man (yes, I said 1985 not 1895). Joseph Ribeiro is a Fulbright scholar who has won awards for his stagework in Northern California where he teaches theater. Marius Weyers has been in everything from GHANDI (1982) to DEEP STAR SIX (1989) and while he’s no Harrison Ford, he is plenty competent when given something slightly better conceived to do. Also, there are a few moments in the film that make you wonder if Lucasburg saw it. The truck/motorcycle-sidecar chase from INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) is extremely reminiscent of the one found here, except here they shoot a purple laser at the sidecar and it detaches from the motorcycle and slides across the ground into a river where the irate Nazi is humorously deluged with water. Also, they mention that the artifact that they are after could be of alien origin and what was the last idea Lucasburg had for Indy? Yeah, that last sequel was so bad that I could totally believe that they stole the idea for it from this bastard child of a movie.

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