There was a Golden Age for trash action movies, and that was the eighties. Epytomising this era of (seemingly) innocent exploitation and destruction was a colossus we all know, in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Combining him with the King of Shit - Paul Verhoeven - produces films like Total Recall.
That might seem like an opening paragraph that sets the scene for a bad review, but please give me a chance to explain myself. I love Total Recall. I love it because there's always room for films like this. Not every Director can be Ingmar Bergman, and not every actor can be Laurence Olivier. When people recognise what they're good at and play to those strengths, a strange thing happens. Badly written films featuring awful acting, dreadful plots and shaky sets can become something loveable and entertaining, and those faults become fun to watch.
Perhaps growing up in the eighties and nineties has influenced my opinion of the works of Arnie and Verhoeven, but there's something wanton and ballsy about it all. There's a willingness about their films to be nothing more than they are, a genre I call 'Crapertainment'. When a film is crap but entertainingly so.
Verhoeven is not a fan of subtlety, and if a chance arises to feature a three-breasted hooker on Mars, that's a chance that won't be missed. If the chance then arises to have a character openly fondle said Hooker ("Baby, you make me wish I had three hands!"), all the better. If said triple-breaster can then be gunned down mercilessly by Nazi-esque security forces whilst a midget prostitute fires a burst of sub-machinegun fire from atop a bar - then why the hell not? And why not show it all in loving close-up?
Weakly written supporting characters abound - why is villain Cohaagen so cruel to the people of Mars? Such details are unimportant - and the main character himself spends the entire film wondering aloud about who he is and why he's drawn to Mars, a handy plot device which allows the film to focus on it's number one priority - Action. This is pure Arnie from the get go. Exploding fake heads that talk, chases ending in a dozen innocent deaths, random shootouts, pulling a golf ball out of your nose, violent limb-removal and an eye-popping trip to the surface of Mars all feature.
Originally a story by Phillip K Dick - whose work has been turned into so many films, almost entirely without success it would seem - the plot is actually surprisingly complex as well as being nonsensical. A company called Recall is offering implanted memories of holidays for those who can't afford the real thing. But when Hauser - Arnold Schwarzenegger - opts for some added extras in his holiday such as a 'Spy Mission' scenario, the implant apparently goes awry and he awakens hidden memories about Mars that reveal him to be an agent in real life, albeit one whose mind was wiped. Armed with a heap of questions about who, what, where and why, Arnie sets off for Mars to look for straightforward answers. He kills his way to the truth, before the inevitable ham-fisted romantic ending.
Or so it would seem. In spite of itself, Total Recall does manage to maintain a level of insecurity in the viewer regarding the true nature of the plot. At what point has reality been overtaken by the implant? Has it been overtaken at all? Is Hauser merely undergoing a psychotic episode?
At no point does Verhoeven reveal his hand. There are clues, to be sure, yet the plot remains beguilingly vague when it comes to easy answers. When all is said and done, however, there really aren't many questions. Arnie kills badguys by the boatload, there are some good effects (for the time) and plenty of one-liners. The pacing is nothing short of expert, as one would expect from a director who makes films specifically with a brainless and presumably intoxicated audience in mind.
On plenty of occasions, it's relaxing to slip into that costume for a while, kick back, and enjoy the appalling ride. Like a rundown ghost house at the end of a crappy pier - most of the laughs come from a knowing nudge to your co-passengers and a sarcastic comment or twelve.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.