Sandahl Bergman, Robert Ginty and a Young Paul Walker only kill our Enthusiasm for late-1980s Robo-programmers
DIRECTED BY ALLAN HOLZMAN/1987
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 17, 2023/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
It takes more than death to keep a killer woman down- it takes the pre-release death of multiple film projects she starred in! At least, that’s my muddled understanding of what went wrong in the series of inept disasters that led to two Bergman films being salvaged for parts in the assembly of the Frankenmovie that is Programmed to Kill. Bergman movies? No, not that Bergman…. Or that Bergman. I’m referring to prolific b-movie actress Sandahl Bergman. (Haven’t I done this bit before…? Yes, yes I did. But for a movie as recycled as this one is, it’s only fitting that I repeat it).
Even with the benefit of Programmed to Kill’s credited director, Allan Holzman, launching his newly recorded audio commentary track (moderated by filmmaker Douglas Hosdale) with a lengthy explanation (but still general enough not to implicate anyone by name) of what exactly led to his hiring to cobble together the film we have here, I admit I’m still a bit lost on the matter. I glean that there were two completed Sandahl Bergman films, both deemed incomplete and/or unreleasable. Holzman, a self-professed editing whiz who claims to have saved many a troubled Roger Corman film (“Battle Beyond the Stars? I saved that.”) was then hired to come in, concoct a single film from all that footage, and given a pittance of a budget to shoot whatever linking horsecrap was necessary to make it all work. Forgive me if that’s inaccurate. Like I said, it’s a convoluted mess of a story about the making of a convoluted mess of a movie, none of which amounts to anything in the end.
It’s true that Programmed to Kill is total and complete robo-trash. At a lumbering ninety-one minutes, it proves to be a sleep-inducing drag. And that’s with a car chase, explosions, copious semiautomatic firearm usage, a medically gratuitous surgery sequence, and an outdoor marketplace massacre to start things off. What a hook… That first atrocity is committed in part by Bergman’s terrorist character, pre-cyborging. (Cyborging courtesy of an outfit called Cybertron Industries. No, not that Cybertron. The only thing transforming here is the movie while they’re making it). To think, this has its roots in being a female Terminator rip-off. Originally titled “The Retaliator” (groan), another of the disc’s new bonus features claims that several cool robotic facial appliances and whatnot were initially created, but when the visual effects guy was dismissed midway into production, the production also lost all the nifty doodads he put together for this.
That visual effects guy was Robert Short (future Oscar winner for his physical effects on Beetlejuice), who is also the credited screenwriter for Programmed to Kill, despite getting fired long before it ever materialized as such. Short did his short on-camera interview for KL at the same time that he discussed the similarly unknown Ghost Warrior, which the insanely prolific label is also releasing to Blu-ray the same day as this one. Both get the cardboard slipcover treatment… the perfect encasing for a pair of cardboard films. Though of the two, it must be said that Programmed to Kill is hands down the more disastrous.
These days, the biggest claim to fame of Programmed to Kill is that it features an adolescent Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious series) as the young son of the independent mercenary operative played by Robert Ginty. Lantern-jawed Ginty’s character is tasked with tidying up whatever the initial plot is, only to end up doing battle with the lethal reanimated Sandahl Bergman robot. Walker’s presence basically comes down to his homebound longing for the calloused father he adored so much. He’s there to tug our heartstrings in a “Gee dad, why do you have to go off on so many missions?” kinda way. As for Ginty’s character, he’s as much an empty shell as the cyborg he has to take out. Robert Short, as the character’s creator, speaks of having aspirations of him going on to star in further adventures. Ehh, no thanks.
Programmed to Kill is presented from a brand-new HD master struck from a 2K scan of the 35mm interpositive. Which means that someone bothered to keep track of the interpositive of Programmed to Kill for all these decades. Somehow, I find that fact more fascinating than anything going on in the movie itself. Having been released (on very select screens, I gather) several months prior to Paul Verhoeven’s similarly premised masterpiece RoboCop probably did Programmed to Kill no favors, despite its blatant aspirations as a total rip-off of The Terminator. (The poster for it under the big chromium title “The Retaliator” says, “She’s a female terminator”). The new transfer on KL’s Blu-ray, however, does justice to the visuals, particularly Holzman’s many hyper-colorized Predator-esque robot point-of-view shots.
Any movie where the director goes in knowing that his primary task is to explain why the female star goes from being a murderous Middle East terrorist with short brown hair and dressed in camouflage to a rogue soulless machine in a short leather skirt, stiletto heels, and long teased rocker hair in Southern California can’t turn out well. It just can’t. And it really doesn’t. If Robert Ginty gave any kind of good performance here, it’s lost in the shuffle. He squares off with entirely too many disposable on-and-goners while Bergman, mechanical in all the wrong ways, murders the rest. One thing that can be attributed to Programmed to Kill: it definitely lives up to its own title… though not in a good way.