Schlock Value: Laser Mission (1989)
When most people think of Brandon Lee, two things come to mind: that he was the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and that his life was tragically cut short while filming the acclaimed 1994 action film, The Crow. Now, his performance in The Crow has pretty much defined his career, but it’s worth noting that he made a handful of other films prior to that one, all of them varying in quality. So this week, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of those earlier films, and I found Laser Mission, a wonderfully awful, late ‘80s, public domain action film, directed by Hollywood stunt man BJ Davis (As Good as it Gets, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and co-starring legendary character actor, Ernest Borgnine.
The terrific poster, which is a blatant James Bond knock-off, features a pistol-wielding Brandon Lee next to a beautiful woman with a thigh holster, explosions, flying kicks, a helicopter, and, of course, Ernest Borgnine’s jovial mug in the center of a diamond. I mean, how can anyone say no to that?
From its sleek title screen to the familiar VHS haze to the thumping ‘80s theme music (a ridiculous power ballad called “Mercenary Man” from Dire Straits co-founder David Knopfler that is played ad nauseum throughout the film), it’s immediately clear that this is going to be an incredibly entertaining ride. The film opens on some sort of high-society banquet where an incredibly rare (and enormous) diamond is unveiled. It’s not long before a handful of men armed with assault rifles and smoke grenades crash the party and swipe the diamond. Meanwhile, the incredibly handsome and charming government-contracted agent Michael Gold (Brandon Lee) arrives in Cuba to retrieve Prof. Braun (Ernest Borgnine), a German scientist who specializes in laser technology, and convince him to defect to the United States before he is acquired by the Communists to develop a laser cannon with the recently stolen diamond.
Unfortunately, the KGB get the drop on him, and shoot both of them with tranquilizer darts. Hours later, Gold wakes up in a Cuban prison where he is to be executed by guillotine. You know, because why not? After a spectacular prison break, which mostly serves to showcase Lee’s incredible athleticism, Gold finds himself back in Washington, still in his undershirt and slacks from the previous sequence, under pressure from the government brass. After failing in his mission to bring back Prof. Braun, these CIA officials are none too confident in Gold’s ability to succeed in a second attempt, but they let him try anyway because reasons. His new mission: rendezvous with Braun’s daughter Alissa, and rescue Braun from the clutches of the evil Colonel Kalishnakov.
Disguising himself as a Cuban officer, Gold parachutes back into enemy territory. Using a combination of disguises that are totally not racist and a slew of combat techniques, he locates Alissa Braun, a beautiful busty blonde, who, for some reason, works as a zookeeper. Over dinner, he explains who he is and what they need to do. Before long, they are spotted by Cuban military and have to make a dramatic escape, involving a ton of gunfire and more action set-pieces in which the military look more like Keystone Cops than trained killers.
In a particularly entertaining scene, they acquire a Volkswagen microbus that is loaded with artillery, and the two barrell through groups of baddies, effortlessly blowing them all away. Meanwhile, Prof. Braun is being held captive and threatened with death if he does not build the laser cannon. Literally, Kalishnakov has a whole Room of Death™ in this place.
As Michael Gold and Alissa Braun make their way across the terrain, they encounter another enemy outpost, resulting in more gunfire (this time with a rocket launcher). Unfortunately, they lose the VW bus, forcing them to continue their journey on foot, where they encounter yet another guy, who is, for some reason, tracking them through the desert alone. But thanks to another clever disguise (this time, Gold just covers himself in sand), they’re able to ambush him. Eventually, they come upon a civilized area where they shack up in a hotel for the night. Cue obligatory love scene. The next morning, Alissa heads out on her own and is subsequently captured by enemy soldiers and used as bait.
Now everyone is captured, but with some martial arts know-how, a little can-do attitude, Gold rescues the professor and the two make their way to a nearby work camp where Alissa and that big ass diamond from earlier are being held by Kalishnakov. While Gold and Prof. Braun head in guns a-blazing, Alissa manages to free herself from her restraints and the three basically fight their way out, just mowing down bad guys left and right. When the dust finally settles, Alissa reveals that she is not, in fact, Prof. Braun’s daughter, but a “guardian angel” sent in to assist Gold. Cue the CIA helicopter containing Braun’s actual daughter, as well as the two officials from earlier in the movie. Why they conveniently chose to swoop in just as everything was just about finished is anyone’s guess.
I am pleased to say that Laser Mission absolutely surpassed all of my wildest expectations. It’s just wall-to-wall fun. Sure, it’s mostly just a bad James Bond knock off, the script is incredibly weak and the characters are two-dimensional at best, but Brandon Lee’s performance (tongue firmly planted in his cheek) and the legitimately compelling action set pieces more than make up for it. Lee seems to know exactly the sort of movie he’s in, and really leans into the comedy, effortlessly delivering all of his zippy one-liners with a natural charisma that elevates what would otherwise be cringe-worthy dialogue. For instance, while hurtling across rooftops dressed as a beggar, he falls through a roof and through a family’s kitchen table as they are about to eat, and without missing a beat, says, “I just dropped in to say...bon appetit!” I mean, the only other person of this era who could deliver that line is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Everyone else in the film, unfortunately, falls flat. Ernest Borgnine is clearly just phoning it in at this point in his career, and while it’s clear that Debi A. Monahan (Alissa) has great chemistry with Brandon Lee, she often has trouble playing much more than a ditzy blonde, despite how badass her character is. And the fact that she’s in a low-cut evening gown for much of the film doesn’t help. As for the action set pieces, they could have benefitted from a better cinematographer, but for the most part, they’re a ton of fun (and plentiful). Using actual explosions and a handful of real car-flips, director (and stunt coordinator) BJ Davis proves that even in bottom-of-the-barrel, straight-to-VHS garbage, practical effects are always the way to go.
Laser Mission is the sort of film I dream about. It’s basically a greatest hits of ridiculous 1980s action and it knows it. Those looking for any sort of substance, I urge you to seek elsewhere. But for those of you who are into cheap, high-octane action with a sense of humor, or if you just want to explore more of Brandon Lee’s unfortunately short career, this one is a must-watch. You can find it in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Sci-Fi Classics collection. Probably because it has “laser” in the title.