The hexagonal Cannon Group logo should be familiar to anyone who wasted their 80’s-era adolescence at the movie theater. Its appearance onscreen became so ubiquitous in Reagan-era America that the mere sight of it evoked memories of an old friend coming to visit. Except the Cannon Group logo was that batshit crazy friend you hung out with despite better judgment, the one that brought trouble and mayhem wherever he went. Common sense bid you the capacity to run away, to avoid at all costs, and yet, there you were every weekend to see what deviltry your buddy got into onscreen.
At least that’s how it was for me. I started going to the movies without adult supervision in 1980, the same year that Cannon released The Apple. Part of the triumvirate of “what the hell?” disco movies of 1980 (Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music were the others), it’s the only one I didn’t see until I got a copy on VHS years later. It was directed by the late Menahem Golan who, along with his cousin Yoram Globus, bought the Cannon Group from British backers and turned it into the beloved bad studio it became in its heyday. The little kid I was in the 70’s had American International Pictures and New World Pictures to cut his teeth on; those were movie choices, made beyond my control, by the folks who took me. With a mixture of horror and delight, I humbly state that I chose every Cannon Group movie my evil, trash-loving heart witnessed.
I don’t think director Mark Hartley had the same experience I had with Cannon, but the documentary he made about the studio shows he’s done his homework. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films gets its first two words from the greatest sequel title ever to grace a screen, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. That film, the sequel to the breakout hit, Breakin’, was a huge hit amongst me and my friends; we were breakdancers who loved seeing famous hip hop dancers Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp onscreen. It was also one of the better movies Cannon attempted. Even Roger Ebert liked it.
As the documentary Electric Boogaloo points out, a lot of big Hollywood stars, not to mention Hollywood stars who used to be big, flocked to Cannon to make movies. Several talking heads speculate that it was due to the freedom Golan gave to his artists. “He couldn’t say no to anybody,” one person tells us. He was good cop to Globus’ bad cop, and the two argued like cats and dogs before eventually splitting up as partners for good. Hartley sat through over 100 Cannon movies to make Electric Boogaloo and I’ll bet the only actorly freedom he discovered was the freedom to make some of the worst movies of one’s career.
Regardless, the actors still show up to represent their Cannon love. Elliott Gould speaks of his experiences and tells a funny story about Golan’s hot temper. Clips from several Faye Dunaway movies are played, including Michael Winner’s The Wicked Lady. Off the top of my head, I can cite established stars Lou Gossett, Richard Chamberlain, Julie Andrews, Jon Voight, John Cassavettes and Eric Roberts as members of the Cannon canon. On the up-and-coming side, Sharon Stone famously appeared in a remake of King Solomon’s Mines its sequel, the gloriously titled “Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold.” Chamberlain appears onscreen to speak about just how much Stone’s costars hated her. Hartley’s camera almost seems to be licking its lips at this gossip.
Many directors of note also found their way to Cannon, most notably J. Lee Thompson and John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer directed 52-Pick Up, one of the best and the nastiest of the numerous Elmore Leonard adaptations. Thompson’s late-career filmography tied him inextricably to a star he directed several times prior, Charles Bronson. If New Line Cinema is “the house that Freddy built,” The Cannon Group might be considered “the house that Bronson rebuilt.”
Electric Boogaloo presents clips from much of Bronson’s output (he made 10 films for the studio), and while I don’t recall seeing a scene from the extremely sleazy Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, Hartley devotes a good chunk of time to Bronson’s most infamous Cannon release, the MPAA-butchered Death Wish II. This may be the one case in cinema history where I’d side with the MPAA. Death Wish II is incredibly vile and rapey, even moreso in its unrated cut. Hartley’s selection of clips were a jolting reminder to me of how the words vile and rapey can be alternately used to describe many Cannon releases.
Death Wish II is the first Cannon movie I can recall seeing, though I am certain the Filmways logo played at the beginning of it in 1981. I’d foolishly follow Bronson through three more sequels, each made as he got progressively older. I once joked that Death Wish VI would find Bronson shooting minorities for killing his pets, as he’d have no other human loved ones for them to rape and murder. “This is for Fluffy!” Bronson would say as he shot Laurence Fishburne in the face with a bazooka. It sounds far-fetched, until Hartley shows Bronson shooting Fishburne in the face in Death Wish II.
Like Golan and Globus, Death Wish II’s director, Michael Winner casts a big shadow over Electric Boogaloo. Several people point out that the tales of his sadistic nature were not only true but toned down. Also leaving a lasting impression is Tobe Hooper, whose The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II was misunderstood by Golan-Globus as being a straight horror movie instead of the gore-infested horror comedy Hooper delivered. “We had Leatherface and his family in the same pose The Breakfast Club had on their poster,” says Hooper. “And they didn’t know this was supposed to be funny?”
You’d be surprised how many people show up to dish and bitch about their time at Cannon. Bo Derek talks about Bolero. Lucinda Dickey and Franco Nero talk about the Ninja trilogy, then Dickey alone speaks of how hated she was on the set of Breakin’. Clip after clip of your favorite Cannon movies appear onscreen, from my guilty pleasure He-Man movie Masters of the Universe to a shot of Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules flinging a fake ass grizzly bear into outer space. It was exactly what I expected and wanted.
Unfortunately, Electric Boogaloo is a cautionary tale about being careful for what you wish. It plays like, well, a Cannon movie. Eventually, the viewer becomes worn down by the somewhat haphazard assault of clips, and Hartley unwisely avoids devoting more screen time to the instances where Cannon went prestigious. Little mention is made of the overrated though still respectable Runaway Train, and there’s no mention of Cannon’s Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film, The Assault.
Additionally, the film seems afraid to plumb the darker aspects of the relationship between the company and its workers. It’s wise enough to acknowledge these elements, but bypasses them in favor of more clips for the audience to mock/remember/cringe over. A deeper documentary is just below the surface, just out of reach of the viewer’s grasp.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of The Cannon Group was my most anticipated movie of the Toronto Film Festival. “The Cannon Group ruined my adolescence,” I told a fellow critic, “and I can’t wait to relive every second of that.” Funny how nostalgia clouds your judgment. This is a very enjoyable movie, but like the films of its subject, it’s not a very good one.