I have a VHS problem. They are my Chapstick; bought frequently, replaced before sufficient use, and lost from my pockets as collateral damage when I retrieve change overzealously. Adventures in Home Video™ is an attempt to subsidize that problem and justify its consuming ruin by digging into three loosely connected, barely discussed VHS tapes that I happen to own. There’s no telling what we’ll find when we rewind. You’re all enablers now. Join me, won’t you?
Kickboxers. Martial artists. Professional wrestlers. They’re good at hurting people, but are they good at pretending to hurt people? I decided to find out in the most scientific way I know, by watching three VHS tapes that I already own for some reason that star people who hurt other people for a living now pretending to hurt people for a living. Today’s tapes: Thunder in Paradise II (1994), starring Hulk Hogan; Nemesis (1992), starring French World Kickboxing Champion Olivier Gruner, and The Green Hornet Starring Bruce Lee as “Kato” (1974), starring, um, Bruce Lee (as “Kato”).
I’m going to start with Thunder in Paradise II because Thunder in Paradise II is what started it all. I was sweating over a rummage sale box of dead media in an un-air-conditioned high school gym when I found the greatest movie ever sold on the promise of a free two-week Gold’s Gym membership with every rental. I knew I’d stumbled onto something profound, a piece of home video minutiae that nobody besides me and, like, three people somewhere on the internet would care about, that I absolutely had to buy. That I absolutely had to write about.
Because you can’t sit through a full three minutes of opening credits comprised of nothing but women in 1990s-neon swimwear and nondescript synth without needing to talk to somebody about it. The first sentence on the back of the box calls it an “incredible action-packed adventure for the entire family.” And it is, in the same way a TV dinner has something for everybody, with the stroganoff, mashed potatoes and rubberized brownie fiercely separated, yet all carrying the same wincing aftertaste of tin foil. The frolicking bikini models are there to sell Weird Uncle Craig on watching past the second scene — a whimsical scene in a Florida swamp where a magical black woman with an ambiguous Caribbean accent teaches a little girl about “dream crowns.” The rest of the movie strikes a delicate balance between these two extremes, held together with liberal stock footage of the “Thunder,” the talking speedboat of the title. At its simultaneous best-worst, Thunder in Paradise II is a bastard blend of Hasselhoff myth: Baywatch and Knight Rider. Which makes sense considering Thunder in Paradise II is, in fact, a two-part episode of a TV show masterminded by the same brain trust that gave us Baywatch in the first place.
The most glaring difference, and the whole reason we’re here, is that it doesn’t star an actor, but professional wrestler and amateur racist Hulk Hogan. Well, Terry Hogan, as he’s credited here. See, the Hulkster left the WWF in 1993 to star in Thunder and spread Hulkamania to new, unsuspecting demographics. He would become “Terry Hogan, Ac-Tor.” Then he saw the hours he’d be working and joined World Championship Wrestling the following year, which was shooting on the next soundstage over anyway. The time-consuming mediocrity of Thunder in Paradise indirectly fired an early shot in what wrestling fans would come to know as the Monday Night Wars between the struggling WWF and hotshot WCW.
Why’s that matter? Because everything that Thunder in Paradise II represents is far more interesting than anything that actually happens in it.
Hulk Hogan’s daughter falls asleep while wearing an aforementioned “dream crown” and, as advertised, has a dream. Her dad and his partner-in-crime, who looks like the buff son of Jack Lemmon and actually is, escape from Epcot Center’s Morocco pavilion, guns blazing, with a princess in tow. But then they die over a poorly explained mistake. We later find out this is no ordinary dream, but a vision of the last 15 minutes of the movie, which will reuse the same footage, minus the fiery death. But while the dream crown lets her see the future, it also spiritually connects supermodel Carol Alt, who doesn’t get ogled by the camera but is nicknamed “Legs” to compensate, to a Taninasian prince. The dream they share is so powerful, so moving, that he manages to find her in under a day based only on the memory that she was near a “white castle” that looks conspicuously like Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. They fall in love over the course of a Kay Jewelers commercial and she’s soon flying off to Taninasia to *gulp* be his bride?
Hogan and his sidekick, who also looks like Greg Kinnear’s Frank Stallone, hop in their superboat and hit the Taninasian coast for a low-octane rescue. How low? They get in the boat around minute 40, and riff about what they’re hungry for until minute 43. If you’re wondering, nothing hits our hero’s spot like “a double meat Whopper all the way, with cheese, heavy on the onions.” You are what you eat, and so, too, is the Hulkster.
He may have been downright legendary in the world of pretending to hurt people while also regularly still hurting them or himself, but he can’t make a punchline sound like a punchline. I had to rewind entirely too many times for a movie called Thunder in Paradise II that offered me a free Gold’s Gym trial membership on the cover.
And I don’t want a Hulk-grade body because his physicality hurts more than it ever helps. Despite his whole career being built on a certain kind of athleticism, Hulk Hogan is not a graceful man. Not even underwater. You ever notice how Arnold Schwarzenegger never really runs in his movies? Because a human fridge of weight-lifting muscle loses some cool when you see that fridge trying to run somebody down. Hulk Hogan has no wise or vaguely competent filmmakers to work around his limitations. So on screen he’s nothing but limitations. When he hurries into his daughter’s room after she dreams of his incinerated demise, with his bald head, shoulder-length hair and colossal stature, Hulk Hogan looks like a hypothetical fourth Stooge, designed by hairstyle process-of-elimination and force-fed protein powder. This is also ignoring the fact that he ran into her room, presumably in the dead of night, wearing head-to-toe denim and no sleeves.
If Baywatch represents the shallowest end of 1990s television, Thunder in Paradise is the enterprising moron that still found a way to drown in it. But at least it has some great footage of Walt Disney World circa 1993. I wasn’t joking about the Morocco pavilion at Epcot. “Taninasia” is nothing more than the three alleyways and only courtyard wide enough to comfortably fit a camera crew, filled with extras in costumes from the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Speaking of which, the grand finale of Thunder in Paradise II is, note-for-note, the Cairo sequence of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. All the action is shot from the same side because that’s the side the tourists sit on. This is the highlight of the movie — something equally exciting to watch on your old vacation tapes. And at least your vacation tapes don’t make you sit through a three-minute daydream montage of Jack Lemmon’s son getting his bare chest stroked by a harem of models dressed like dancers in the 3 o’clock Aladdin parade.
There are so many little, baffling moments in Thunder that I could write about it forever, but let’s move on to another hastily slapped-together collection of TV episodes sold as a feature-length film. At least The Green Hornet Starring Bruce Lee as “Kato” saw the inside of a movie theater, even if it was under ghoulish circumstances.
Bruce Lee died in 1973, a week before Enter the Dragon opened and his white-hot fame would burn into cinematic legend. In 1974, audiences wanted Bruce Lee more than ever. Too bad there wasn’t any more to go around.
Until enterprising producers licensed four episodes of the 1966 Green Hornet TV series that introduced Bruce Lee to the world outside Hong Kong (where it was tellingly retitled The Kato Show).
So, as the blatant name and face-filled cover give away, The Green Hornet Starring Bruce Lee as “Kato” was a cash grab. A clumsily pasted-together tribute to a dead man’s work on a 10-year-old TV show.
But damn if it’s not great work.
Executive producer William Dozier wanted to bring The Green Hornet to television for years, but it took the runaway success of his other series, Batman, to make it happen. As such a close cousin, down to the cameos and crossovers, The Green Hornet feels inescapably like Batman, only played straight. But not too straight. It may not have shelves labeled Bat Research Shelves or a color palette that could cook a steak if you held it too close to the TV, but like Batman, The Green Hornet knows exactly what it is. The villain of the first third steps into his own booby trap and gets strung up by his feet, swinging his fists in Not-Again futility. After a crime boss watches The Green Hornet and Kato break down the same door twice with recycled footage, he shakes his head and begs – “You’re gonna break me gettin’ that door fixed.” The middle third involves aliens.
The Green Hornet holds up outstandingly better than Thunder in Paradise II, even with a completely artificial structure. Thunder II was an easy translation for home video — a two-part “arc” of 45-minute episodes. Green Hornet took four 24-minute episodes, cut down the middle two-parter, threw in some extraneous fights and stuck it all together. Music-Randomly-Dies-On-Cuts-Within-Scenes stuck. You could set your watch by the ending of each episode and keep time with the commercial breaks. Very little effort went into hiding what The Green Hornet was, and yet that doesn’t really hurt it.
The first plot sees our heroes taking on an evil consortium of big game hunters out for the most dangerous game of all: The Green Hornet. The middle gets trippy when aliens with clear, plastic yo-yos over their eyes force the Hornet’s alter-ego, media magnate Britt Reid, to broadcast their threat of invasion. The last half-hour might well be the entire reason this was shoved into theaters. As the back of the box puts it: “Don’t miss Kato’s encounter with the famed masked Kung Fu master!” That particular fight lasts maybe two minutes, but I still fell for it — Bruce Lee makes off with every frame he wanders into. The fight choreography is only a notch above the room-clearing Boom-Bam-Biff brawls of Batman, but here those same fast-and-cheap wide angles get out of the way and let Bruce do what we all came to see. Even at the half-speed he had to perform so the cameras could see him, Lee’s a force of nature. That Van Williams still holds his own as the Hornet is a minor miracle, though learning some moves from Lee certainly helped.
It’s a stylish, noir-dipped good time all around, TV limitations or otherwise, but the most unexpected delight was the action. This show made America fall in love with Bruce Lee and it’s easy to see why.
It’s harder to see why Nemesis didn’t make America fall in love with Olivier Gruner, the World Middleweight Kickboxing Champion of 1986. Or at least fall in like.
Directed by B-movie master Albert Pyun, who helped introduce Jean-Claude Van Damme with Cyborg, a similar sci-fi smorgasbord, Nemesis is not a good movie. Whenever someone talks, I either paid no attention as a defense mechanism or hurt myself trying to make sense of the conversation. The only way to keep tabs on the plot is to spot the pieces it steals from other, better movies. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
A law enforcement agent is cornered by a criminal gang and shot to pieces, only to be cybernetically restored and question his own humanity. Then he goes on the run as a rebel in a desert wasteland. Until the fuzz catches him and implants a literal ticking time-bomb inside him, only offering salvation if he pulls off their politically motivated rescue mission. Until the villain is revealed as a secret cyborg, its artificial skin is burned off, and the remaining stop-motion endoskeleton chases down the good guys. It also rips off Aliens.
The only reason to watch Nemesis is for the fall-down-go-booms, because I haven’t seen a movie that looked this negligently dangerous in a long time. I am not alleging any actual carelessness or criminal action. It’s just that every explosion looks like it could’ve killed the actors involved or at least started a forest fire. No death-defying leap is made without throwing a front-flip on the way down. Rooms of all sizes get smoked out in the aftermath of a thousand blanks. Actors and stunt doubles alike roll off rooftops, outrun collapsing silos, and fall through a comical number of floors in what only appears to be a three-story building, all intercut with squeamishly effective special effects and Olivier Gruner hauling ass like every shot could be his last.
His acting is … not important. This was only his second movie, and considering his first was so offensively bad it inspired gang riots, I’m willing to cut him some slack on making tired dialogue sound tough. But what made me sit up and say damn, in a movie full of sit-up-and-say-damn moments, is the way he moves. For all the cool-in-close-up agility of his otherwise too-similar contemporary Van Damme, Gruner runs like hell. Limbs flailing, but not like Seagal’s embarrassingly iconic form. His face puckered in equal parts determination and genuine fear. As soon as the starting shot is fired, you can’t watch anyone else until the compulsory three lines of exposition move him to the next war zone. He comes off as an animal of sheer survival, as opposed to the martial artist-turned-action-star standard Killing Machine at the time. I’ve never seen that distinct kind of physicality in an actor before. His inspiration, of all people, was Bruce Lee, and to Gruner’s credit, it shows.
Which is a shame considering he went on to exclusively direct-to-DVD fare, back when it was still seen as an ill-advised step down, like eating at a food truck before 2014. I can’t fully recommend Nemesis, but it’s a low-budget science-fiction thriller made when there was no low-budget way to fake a gunshot, and science fiction meant taping a bunch of scopes to normal guns to make them science-fiction guns. There are lizard-brain, adrenaline-spiking thrills to be had. And you see Thomas Jane’s bare ass in it, if that does anything for you. It’s got better beefcake than anything in Thunder in Paradise II, and that was built from the ground up as a beefcake delivery system.
I guess that’s the closest thing to a lesson I learned from all this fake violence. The jump from hurting people for a living to pretending to hurt people for a living is as obvious as it is fickle. When it works, we end up with Bruce Lee. Or even when it works well enough, in the right context, with enough obscene explosions, it turns a genre slushpile like Nemesis into something memorable.
But never, under any circumstances, let Hulk Hogan act.