Mixing science fiction into traditionally non-science fiction genres can be a tricky thing to make work as Jon Favreau discovered with Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and even Steven Spielberg discovered with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). So, kudos to the writing and directing partnership of Lexie Findarle Trivundza and Nick Trivundza (The West and the Ruthless, 2017) for giving it a red hot go by mashing together the 80’s action-adventure genre with a good dose of sci-fi-time-travel tropes in their second film, the comically titled Danger! Danger!. It may not be an entirely successful effort, but it’s a lot of fun watching them try to pull it off.
The film begins with a killer opening shot. We’re looking at a wide-angle of a rugged landscape on an island that a title card tells us is twenty miles off the coast of Africa in the year 1985. Suddenly, BAM! our hero, Jonathan (Benedict Mazurak) sits up into the tight foreground of the frame with a look of astonishment on his face. He seems as confused as we are as to what he’s doing here and why. He’s even more confused (as are we) about how and why he’s been skewered by a tree branch. The camera pulls back to reveal his rumpled parachute and the branch at least, if nothing else, now makes sense.
So, why has he parachuted onto this seemingly deserted island? Well, for a start, it’s not all that deserted. It’s occupied by Russian forces led, inexplicably, by Ella Fritz (Alexandra Keller) a throwback German Nazi who never got over the Third Reich losing the war (even though the war ended forty years ago and she’s clearly not that old). Jonathan stumbles into their camp where he spots a crate stencilled with the words Danger! Danger!. We never find out what’s in the crate, but this gives Jonathan the prompt, when interrogated by Ella, to invent his cover name – now he’s Jonathan Danger!
And then, in a flash (as they used to say in the classics) he escapes the clutches of the Soviet-cum-Nazi villains, only to run into Jade Calloway (Angela Smeraldi) and her kooky brother Jungle Jim (Paul Haapaniemi) who is convinced that our hero is a Russian spy. Seems as though everyone here is looking for the same thing – an ancient temple that, in reality (if you can use that word for a story like this) might just be a hidden time machine from the future. By now, you’re probably getting the idea that this movie has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and that being set in 1985 is no accident – the 80’s is the era of movies it wants to pay homage to; Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies and all the rest of those action adventures that both thrilled us and tickled our funny bones at the same time.
The problem is that after such a terrific set up, the action stalls and the characters tend to talk about these movies rather than referencing them in more physical and visual ways. There are too many scenes of characters sitting or standing around talking to each other in exposition and backstory rather than getting on with it by doing stuff. You know what they say, show don’t tell. Well, after such a showy start, the film settles into too much telling.
It’s ironic, then, that there are some key bits of information we’re not told. We know that Jonathan is here to find the time machine and travel three years into the past to avert a tragic event that happened to him. But we never find out who he really is, nor do we find out how he knows about the time machine or how he managed to get here in the first place. The same goes for Jade and Jungle Jim. There’s a flimsy explanation about having five years' worth of Lotto numbers and going into the past to make their fortune, but how do they know about the time machine and the local tribes who created the temple that hides it and the religion it inspired? It’s not even clear how the bad guys know about it, other than a suggestion that the time machine was (or will be) a joint Soviet- American project... but that’s all in the future so it still doesn’t quite gel. Ella does try and explain that she’s hoping to go back and prevent the Soviets from dividing her city with the Berlin Wall. (If she’d just wait another four years the thing would come down anyway).
Of course, in funny, silly movies like this, you can get away with the occasional plot hole big enough to drive a Panza tank through, but the basics of the story, the motivations of the characters and the film’s internal logic about the existence of time travel are fundamentals that we should be freed from wondering about so that we can enjoy the ride.
Nevertheless, there are some strong performances here. Mazurek is perfectly cast as our adventure hero who is just doofussy enough to make us laugh (and sometimes cheer) and Smeraldi works well as both his possible rival and potential love interest. Keller, on the other hand, is not quite evil enough in her villainy and Haapeniemi is a little too over the top in his role as the jokey, third wheel brother (think John Hannah in the 1999 version of The Mummy, but dialled up to eleven).
There are other great elements like the cinematography by Santiago Bahti which makes the most the visual potential of the film’s location in the beautiful Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles in California (a bit more than twenty miles off the coast of Africa) and the film’s music has as much drama, if not more than the narrative itself – not so much a score written for the film, as music sourced from pre-existing works the majority of which are composed by Graham Plowman with fantastically evocative titles like Escape Through the Asteroid Field, Rebel Assault, Shadow of the Death Star and Space Wars. Despite its clear association, Plowman’s music is more redolent of the movie serials of the thirties and forties than with space operas like the Star Wars franchise, and that’s just perfect for this movie (another nod to Indiana Jones?).
Danger! Danger! Is a romp, and deliberately so. Despite its shortcomings, there’s a lot to enjoy about it, but it’s a frustration that those shortcomings weren’t addressed at the script level in order to elevate the whole venture into something that could prove you can mix sci-fi in with action-adventure and make it work.
P.S. Stick around after the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at some of what goes on during the making of a low-budget movie like this, hosted in selfie-mode by the star, Benedict Mazurek.
Danger, Danger! is available on DVD via Eagle Entertainment.