Turbo Kid, the first feature from Canadian filmmaking collective Roadkill Superstar (RKSS), in many ways falls victim to many of the same problems that dog the glut of recent retro-kitsch rip-offs. Between its generous helpings of cartoon violence, wink-wink genre movie references, and self-conscious cheesiness, it too often feels like it was engineered in a laboratory by movie nerds hoping to create the prefect midnight movie. While other neo-canuxploitation efforts like Hobo With a Shotgun and Manborg successfully emulated the ugly weirdness of the grindhouse fare they were knocking off, Turbo Kid feels antiseptic in aesthetic and execution, which is admittedly a bizarre thing to say about a movie where someone mangles someone else’s face with a blender. But for all the operatic flesh-cleaving and bloodletting that Turbo Kid engages in, its strongest point is one not often associated with films of this ilk: earnestness.
Canadian teen-sitcom vet Munro Chambers stars as the Kid, an orphan living along in a bunker in an deserted wasteland circa 1997. His quiet life of scavenging, rocking out to synth-pop, and reading comic books is interrupted when a wide-smiling, overly friendly girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) infiltrates his domain. Bound by circumstance with a swaggering cowboy arm-wrestler named Frederic (Aaron Jeffery), the three fall under the clutches of the nefarious Zeus (Michael Ironside), a one-eyed feudal lord/gladiator combat enthusiast who controls the area’s clean water supply, and thus has the whole wasteland under his thumb. If the movie has anything going for it, it’s that it can claim to be the 1980s Italian post-apocalypse rip-off version of Mad Max: Fury Road, only better-looking and made with Commonwealth money. But where texture and imagery are concerned, it rarely rises above the status of cultural Xeroxing. Some touchstones are easier to pick out than others: Brian Trenchard-Smith, Sam Raimi, early Peter Jackson, Saturday morning cartoons. Some of the choices are considerably weirder: Leboeuf’s character appears to be the personification of the 1980 Cannon Films disco-musical The Apple. There’s a baffling-but-welcome appearance by Quebecois journeyman actor Yves Corbeil. The score, courtesy of Montreal electro duo Le Matos, feels like a strange, misremembered amalgam of John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, and Stan Bush’s “The Touch” from Transformers: The Movie. But it’s in between the moments of chunky gore and retro trappings that the film finds a voice of its own.
Turbo Kid is about a young man who has lived the bulk of his life alone, presumably not sharing his bunker with anyone else. The lead female character is comically chipper and seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. The rapport that Chambers and Leboeuf develop over the course of the film is not unlike that of a kid introducing the new girl of the neighborhood into the fold. As they’re running down the rules of the wasteland, drawing maps in colored pencil, and jury-rigging together weapons from garden shed clutter, the Kid and Apple feel like two kids playing a very elaborate game of post-apocalypse pretend, like the God-mode version of 2012’s I Declare War. When this sense of playfulness bleeds into the rest of the film, even in coarse and/or gross fashion, the film flies highest. Extreme arm-wrestling involving branding irons, a nightmarish grinder that creates clean water, and the central sci-fi conceit itself all follow the fanciful, sometimes cruel dream logic of children’s games. Even Michael Ironside, by bringing incredible menace and gravitas to what is essentially a one-dimensional role, adds to this sense of performative playfulness. But the second someone isn’t one that wavelength, like when Aaron Jeffery visibly tries to figure out if he should be more like Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford, or when the blood and guts start flying out of nowhere, the film loses whatever tonal momentum it had.
Movies like Turbo Kid need more than just a deep, abiding love of 80s junk culture and a few gallons of fake blood to survive: they need personality, vision, and craft (though this movie does have its moments of gonzo poetry, like the shot of Leboeuf marveling at a party popper). Too often, these sorts of movies are mere exercises in empty arm’s-length pastiche, and not spiritual successors of the grimy Cannon/Citadel/Paragon lineage they want to be. The screenplay for Turbo Kid feels stretched thin and padded out, which betrays its original as a short film (it was originally made as part of The ABCs of Death‘s “T” segment contest), which also explains the uneasy relationship between the characters, the action, and the splatter. But as with many of these movies, there’s a contagious enthusiasm evident in the final product, which may very well make it worth another look during an inevitable future witching-hour showing.
Turbo Kid is currently playing in limited release in both Canada and the United States, and is also available on VOD.
Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell; written by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissel; starring Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Aaron Jeffery, Edwin Wright, and Michael Ironside; 95 minutes.