Apologies in advance for the lack of screenshots with excruciatingly unfunny captions to break up what turned out to be a rather hefty write-up. I jumped straight from VHS to Blu-ray for this film (‘cos I’m classy like that), so there’s no way for me to include images without plundering the work of others.
On that note, I do hope Drew Struzan doesn't sue me for starting the review with his awesome theatrical poster!
I first brought up the delightfully trashy Cannon Group in my Cobra review from earlier in the year. Best known for cheap and cheerful R-rated action flicks, their crowning achievement was the family friendly 1987 live action Masters of the Universe adaptation, directed by Gary Goddard. With such an inventive library of characters and stories to take inspiration from, the end result should have been something special. As a Cannon film, however, there were certain concessions to be made...
Here, look, I can insert the standard He-Man fan’s reaction into the following Blu-ray blurb, conveniently provided by Warner Bros:
“Planet Eternia and the Castle of Greyskull are under threat from the evil Skeletor (WOOO, SUCK IT, MUMM-RA!), who wants to take over the planet (OMG JUST LIKE THE CARTOON!). A group of freedom fighters led by the heroic He-Man (FABULOUS SECRET POWERS!) are accidentally transported to Earth (YEA- wuh, wait, what?) by a mysterious Cosmic Key, which holds the power to make Skeletor all-powerful (Oh-Kay...). Once on Earth (Seriously, they’re going with this?), He-Man joins alliances with two teenagers (Stop raping my dreams!) as they attempt to find the key and return home. (Dear god, what have they DONE?!)”
While this is touted as the epic final confrontation between nemeses He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and Skeletor (Frank Langella), tacking on a lame fetch-quest just to keep the budget down takes some wind out of its sails. Really, if you want the whole movie summed up in five seconds, just check out the part where Dolph stumbles through a suburban neighbourhood in full uniform during the dead of night, following the beeps of his tracker thingummy.
But I guess it’s still an interesting angle to tackle this mythology from, what with Castle Greyskull already under Skeletor’s control, the Sorceress imprisoned and our heroes reduced to a ragtag rebellion. Besides, Masters of the Universe isn’t strictly based on the cartoon, but rather the original toy line. As a feature length commercial for Mattel, then, you could call Goddard’s film the spiritual precursor to the recent Transformers and G.I. Joe movies. [sarcasm]We have so much to thank it for.[/sarcasm]
Not everyone’s favourite action figure would appear on-screen, though, due to budget constraints. Complex (and popular) characters like Battle Cat, Stratos and Orco were an inevitable no-no. In fact, the gnome-like Gwildor (Billy Barty), who creates the intergalactic portal-opening Cosmic Key that’s powered by – I shit you not – synth music, was effectively conceived as a replacement for Orco. It’s not like we didn’t get any small fry comic relief, right?
But when freakin’ Ivan Drago and his Swedish Mullet of Champions is headlining your picture, I doubt such accuracy is a big concern. This was Lundgren’s first starring role and, eh herm, it does unfortunately show... mainly whenever he opens his mouth. Dolph’s never exactly mastered a transatlantic accent, but here his slurs get so bad, it’s like he’s staggered out of the local Eternian pub following a dusk ‘til dawn bender with Ram Man. Even single syllable words are savagely butchered in his brutal war on pronunciation. Still, he looks ripped and can swing a blade like a champ. For the film’s primary target audience, not much else matters.
The essential ‘Masters’ were naturally included, each with ample screen time of their own (if only to keep audiences distracted from Dolph’s unique line delivery). In an ideal world where everything is perfect, Tom Selleck would have been cast as Man-At-Arms, but Jon Cypher does the whole ‘fatherly warrior’ thing with much Eternian bravado. Likewise, Chelsea Field brings the sass as Teela (a trait that would suit her well as Bruce Willis’ miserable wife in The Last Boy Scout a few years later) and fits right in as the primary action heroine. Too bad she has to all-but break the fourth wall and deliver the infamous “... Woman-At-Arms!” groaner. Bleh.
The two teenagers (godDAMNit) caught up in this mess, Julie and Kevin, are respectively played by former Bruce Springsteen groupie Courtney Cox and future Starfleet Lieutenant Robert Duncan McNeil. Acting-wise, I can’t complain, but as characters they’re overly clichéd. Going through one of those ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship dilemmas is agonising enough, but Julie’s also grappling with the recentish death of her parents... He-Man! Just to add to their personal crap, they mistake the Cosmic Key for a Japanese synthesiser like only two 80s kids would, and unwittingly draw a whole world of trouble right into their MTV dominated lives, including Skeletor’s “finest mercenaries”. But just who does this A-Team of evil include?
In ascending order, they are: the reptilian Saurod (who does nothing and is atomised as punishment), the sword master Blade (whose skills do not live up to that name), familiar furry face Beast Man (now a mute, but still utterly incompetent) and their leader, the hook-handed/Tina Turner-haired Karg (imagine a man-like Critter dressed like David Bowie and you’re nearly there). They fail miserably at retrieving the Key, get their collective asses kicked by He-Man, and go crawling back to their anorexic master for backup. I’m sure they made for superficially cool action figures, but no kid would want to be seen playing with these losers! What was wrong with the original villains, anyway? Were Trap Jaw, Tri-Klops and Mer-Man all off sick or what?
Our young maybe-lovers have even more to contend with, it would appear. This movie has a secret weapon: James Tolkan. Perhaps more commonly known as ‘the bald guy from Back to the Future’, here Tolkan plays Detective Lubic, who has a hard time getting his head around the sudden Eternian presence in his city. We spend a good chunk of the film waiting for Lubic to snap, and, during the grand finale, Lubic finally goes nuts with a pump-action shotgun. Goddard wanted Gwildor’s “Only one of you... only one of anybody” message to stick with kids, and that’s nice, but nowadays I’m convinced the real moral of this particular story was “Nobody takes pot-shots at Lubic!”
You’ll quickly realise how there’re two distinct parts to this film. Part A consists of He-Man and friends dicking about on Earth. Part B focuses on Skeletor grumping in his new throne room. Take a wild guess which is more entertaining. If you picked the Earth segments, you don’t deserve oxygen. Forget about how young Courtney Cox looks and whatever product Dolph puts in that luscious hair, Skeletor is the primary reason Masters of the Universe retains any semblance of relevance. Hidden behind what resembles a papier-mâché accident, Langella eclipses the whole film with a performance that, when properly analysed, can be broken down into three distinct acting styles. Observe:
HOW TO LANGELETOR
STEP 1 – When turning, make them DRAMATIC TURNS.
STEP 2 – Point at everything with your FINGER OF DOOM.
STEP 3 – Remember, you’re angry, so SHOUT ERRATICALLY.
Only upon combining all three will you come close to the majesty Langella achieved (and I've heard he had a hand in the final script). What remains so impressive to this day is how he chews scenery with the grace that only a classically trained thespian can bring to your Cannon movie. When the camera’s on him, it’s more Hamlet than He-Man. His presence ensured that Masters of the Universe became a bona fide shlock classic of 80s cinema and, in this humble writer’s opinion, gives us the definitive lord of Snake Mountain.
Standing by Skeletor’s side, and in yet another superb casting choice, we also have Meg Foster as Evil Lyn – another absolute must-include character for the filmmakers (lest they fear the wrath of fanboys scorned). She provides an icy alternative to her master’s unpredictable mood swings (he really loves yelling those adverbs), not to mention a capable diversion from Karg’s useless douche squad. Using her seductive menace, it’s creepy how effortlessly Foster segues into the role. I don’t know what type of ethereal plane lurks beyond those deathly pale orbs she calls her eyes... but it probably helped her land the part.
So while the characters are all over the place, avid fans might also be shocked by how the cartoon’s more, ahem, flamboyant aspects were toned down for the big screen. In case you needed reminding, the show opens with Price Adam emerging from a swirling vortex, wearing an uncomfortably tight pink shirt to tell us about that one time fabulous powers were bestowed upon him after extending his magic sword and... yeah, She-Ra was more butch than this guy. But don’t panic! While much of the campy imagery didn’t make the full transition, He-Man himself remains a shining idol of homoeroticism. Spending the whole picture sans trousers, he shows zero interest in any female companions and is instead totally committed to nailing Skeletor right in the butt with his sword once and for all (I may be over thinking this).
This tonal darkening is also noticeable in ol’ bone head’s new costume design. Clad skull-to-foot in a dark cloak, he’s no longer a bulging mass of pale blue skin whose modesty is only narrowly covered up by purple straps. It’s even hinted that his ‘working relationship’ with Evil-Lynn may in fact harbour something more meaningful. Otherwise, Julie has Kevin, I’m guessing Man-At-Arms is a grieving widower at heart, and apart from being a vegetarian, there isn’t nearly enough evidence to back up my theory that Teela’s a lesbian... so basically everyone has a terminal case of the not-gays! Except, thinking about it now, Blade was a bit too enthusiastic when laser-whipping a semi naked He-Man, so I dunno, maybe something’s going on there.
Yet with the extra oomph of a cinematic PG rating, the action was ratcheted up several aggressive notches. You could smash your action figures together like a goob all you wanted (not in that way, please) but violence was virtually nonexistent throughout the cartoon’s run. Ah ha, but this is a Cannon film! What did they release again? Oh yeah, 10 to Midnight, Death Wish 2 – 4, Code of Silence, Invasion USA, the American Ninja series, Bloodsport and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to name but a few. Looks like Saturday morning’s officially over.
Just like that, Skeletor’s got himself a legion of faceless cyborg soldiers decked out in black armour so, brace yourselves, He-Man gets to use his sword! And lasers! To kill! There’s nothing terribly graphic – these drones give off sparks and occasionally explode into stardust – but he still racks up a body count that’s not to be sniffed at. By my reckoning, if you replaced all the sparks with gratuitous blood squibs, this would’ve been the single most violent swords ‘n’ sci-fi fest of the 80s. Masters of the Universe directed by Paul Verhoven. Just... just think about that.
Of course, it’s quite disappointing to see most of the big action set-pieces taking place in such mundane locations. Watching Dolph throw Beast Man into a heap of wooden crates says it all, really. C’mon, this is He-Man! Where are the swamps and canyons teeming with monsters? But in fairness, the sheer juxtaposition of images here is strangely watchable. Watching Skeletor’s goomba platoon wage war on Team Dolph as they take cover in a music store is at the very least a memorable experience, albeit for not entirely conventional reasons. And who could forget the part where our heroes face harsh moral dilemmas over a stolen bucket of barbecued ribs? Certainly not me...
Having it all backed by Bill Conti’s music did a whole universe of good, too. His main title theme comes dangerously close to ripping off John Williams’ Superman score, but Conti’s work finds just the right fantastical niche required to underscore the world of Eternia and its inhabitants. Plus, it’s the only thing keeping He-Man’s fight scenes with Karg and company from maxing out the retard-o-scale.
The film’s overall design also deserves significant praise, regardless of the time spent in a suspiciously deserted downtown L.A. (where is everybody?) Makeup effects and costumes (especially the work done on Skeletor, Beast Man and Saurod) are convincing enough without ever being too silly (save for Blade’s hilarious chainmail ‘n’ spikes getup). I realise Eternia is pretty much relegated to a single room, but it’s one hell of a room! The interior of Greyskull was one of the biggest sets ever built at the time, and it still looks undeniably grandiose. I don’t know why these things always need to be filled with virtually bottomless pits, but hey, whatever works.
Now, did you ever wonder what might happen if Skeletor ACTUALLY got his shit together, breached Greyskull’s defences and managed to claim the power within for himself? Must be pretty spectacular to become Master of the Universe, right? I thought so too. So when Skeletor finally makes an effort to, way hay, kill some protagonists for a change, he does indeed find himself delivering a victory speech before the Great Eye of Eternia and an imprisoned He-Man (a quick heads-up: he rambles on about as long as Steven Seagal did at the end of On Deadly Ground, so bring a snack).
Long story short, Skeletor becomes a god. Apparently, this means maximum SWAG! The Great Eye turns his whole attire into a sparkly golden variant and fits his cranium with the most ridiculous headpiece I’ve ever seen. I think it’s meant to resemble the briefly glimpsed structure of Castle Greyskull itself, but that’s such an impractical fashion choice, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Also, gods get badass laser eyes and develop a terrifying insistence on screaming “KNEEEEEL!!!” All of a sudden, I’m anxious to see Langella and Terence Stamp have a KNEEEEEL-off. It would be glorious.
Sure enough, the good guys arrive just in the nick of time for a big action sequence that hurriedly packs in Lundgren’s guttural cry of “URR HEV DUH PURREH!!!”, and initiates the climactic duel between He-Man and Skeletor. This is it. This is the moment many an 80s kid was waiting for. Sadly, their initial dialogue exchange is the best part. I always get a kick out of ‘pre-fight banter’, but this is something else. Lundgren’s gurning and Langella’s exquisite annunciation clash in a dizzying tornado of cheese and drama as they remind us, quite rightly so, that we are about to witness their “FINAL BATTLE!!!”
Or rather, it’s Dolph sparring with Frank’s stunt double, Anthony De Longis (who also played Blade), for about a minute of PARRY, PARRY, CLASH, SWIVEL, PARRY, DUCK, CLASH etc. before it’s all wrapped up in a manner that’s completely unlike Star Wars... I SWEAR. Eh, Goddard could have at least thrown in a few Ivan Drago quotes to liven it up... and why was Skeletor’s godly power excised the moment He-Man broke his staff... Potential gay symbolism? No? ‘Aight.
The ending is saccharine sweet to the point where I can feel my teeth rotting, and anyone who sat through the credits was rewarded with the promise of a sequel which never materialised. Masters of the Universe bombed, kicking off Cannon’s financially bleak last few years. But the sequel was planned, with a screenplay written and pre-production well underway (some sets and costumes were already designed) by the time its plug was finally pulled. Now comes the interesting part: at around the same time, Cannon’s proposed Albert Pyun-directed Spider-Man (yuh huh) also fell through, so to save costs, Pyun picked up from where Masters 2 had imploded to develop Jean-Claude Van Damme’s post apocalyptic martial arts adventure, Cyborg.
I mean, that’s more or less what happened. Details are messy, but if Masters 2 had gone ahead, I’ve every reason to believe Cannon would have pulled a fast one and released it straight to VHS with Michael Dudikoff playing He-Man and Steve James as Man-At-Arms. Together, they’d embark on a voyage of interracial man-love into the very heart of Snake Mountain, and do battle with John P. Ryan’s Skeletor (no, wait, quickly, someone get me a time machine and ten million dollars!)
There had to be a reason why I nearly wore out my Masters of the Universe VHS as a young(er) person - long before I discovered the violent joys of Dolph Lundgren’s filmography. Back then, it was probably down to all the wacky characters and their goofy high jinks. Having revisited it with some contextual knowledge under my belt, I’ve inadvertently gained a whole new level of respect for the film.
Watch this documentary segment for an idea of what went on behind the scenes. Backed by an unreliable film studio, supplied with limited funds and facing the real possibility that the whole production could come crashing down around them without a moment’s notice, Gary Goddard’s team of exceptional filmmaking talent set out to make a God. Damn. Movie. For all that didn’t go to plan, and despite what could have been under more fortunate circumstances, that’s exactly what they did.
I understand there’s a reboot on the horizon, one that’ll most likely be heavy on the CGI and fuelled by lingering shots of Channing Tatum’s abs. Given the right script and generous production values, it could easily nail the source material and give fans the He-Man film they’ve long-been clamouring for. Whether or not it matches the original’s earnest charm is another matter entirely.