Montreal is a festival city; the Jazz Festival just wrapped up, Just for Laughs has just kicked off, and running parallel to the latter at my old alma mater is the 21st annual Fantasia International Film Festival, where the crème de la crème of genre whatsits and curios from around the world, along with the odd big-budget title, play to rooms of enthusiastic mewling fans. I have never had more fun watching a screening that at Fantasia when the crowd is hot, and my first screening of the 2017 edition did not disappoint, as a rowdy and receptive crowd took in Çetin Inanç’s 1982 junkpile of an actioner The Man Who Saved the World, also known colloquially as “Turkish Star Wars.”
It has been a long strange trip to Montreal for The Man Who Saved the World. It started off as just one of a litany of cheap-o Turkish genre films of the era, going beyond merely emulating American blockbusters to outright lifting footage and sound cues from them thanks to some lax national copyright laws. Eventually, as all weird cultural detritus must, parts of it found its way to YouTube, going viral and making fans of a new generation of psychotrons in the process. And now, a few months shy of its 35th birthday, The Man Who Saved the World, one of the movies sitting pretty on Wikipedia’s list of the worst films ever made, got a screening at the venerable Fantasia festival as part of a three-film retrospective of prolific Turkish actor Cüneyt Arkın sponsored by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. All in all, pretty good for a movie that would either get sued into oblivion or hamstrung by a king’s ransom in rights clearances were it to be today.
The Man Who Saved the World isn’t just any old junk; it is transcendental junk. Right from the jump, it’s easy to see why it has become a badfilm touchstone over the last decade or so. The credits fly fast and furious, too fast to read in fact, over stock-keyboard-patch Muzak. The movie starts proper, as all sci-fi epics worth their salt do, with an interminable expository monologue that gets less cohesive the longer it goes on. This reverbed-out word vomit drones on over footage cribbed from, among other sources, NASA’s archives and, yes, Star Wars. There is no way to underestimate how jarring it is to see George Lucas’ iconic imagery used as recklessly-edited padding or, in a perverse bit of repurposing, rear-projection footage as our heroes, Murat (Arkın, who also wrote the screenplay) and Ali (Aytekin Akkaya), sit in the cockpits of their totally-not-X-Wings. They crash-land on a desert planet, and thanks to a wolf whistle gone awry, they get accosted by a horde of steed-mounted skeletons (well, the editing wants you to think that it’s a horde, but it’s more like four). Then they white-guy kung fu the shit out of these baddies, busting out the vicious elbows and double-leg stomps of the William Shatner-as-James Kirk playbook. And this is to say nothing of the evil wizard who’s searching for a human brain to breach Earth’s shield of concentrated brain molecules (don’t ask) in order to conquer it, his army of deformed mascots and toilet-paper mummies, and his propendency for appearing onscreen to the strains of “Flash’s Theme” by Queen. This all happens in the first act.
Movies like The Man Who Saved the World are scale-breakers. From a formal standpoint, they are unquestionably poor. They often fail to grasp even the most basic tenets of film grammar. The number of coherent edits in this film in particular doesn’t reach double digits. There is only ever one layer of sound on the soundtrack; if anyone speaks, the sounds of the laser guns stop. If someone shoots a laser gun, the score from Ben-Hur stops. The story unfolds as if a six-year-old were telling it, only this six-year-old is really into religious humanism and the cultural history of Islam and Christianity, which yes, both receive screenplay space but only end up muddying the narrative waters further. And yet, it is a riveting viewing experience, not despite its parade of baffling choices, but because of them. These kinds of movies delight in their unpredictability and approximation of spectacle, in the uncanniness of the images they produce. Repeated themes become like in-jokes; Arkın appearing on screen as “The Raiders March” starts playing never stops being disorienting or hilarious, even though it happens over a dozen times. But this shoddiness sometimes leads to moments of gonzo poetry, like the well-known clip of Arkın smelting a mythical golden brain and literally crafting gauntlets and boots from the vessel of all human knowledge. Moments like this (and the movies that contain them) are to be cherished, because frankly, what is cinema for if not for watching a training montage set to Eurodisco where a Turkish Charles Bronson lookalike kicks a series small boulders against a stone wall so hard they explode?
It’s safe to include fight choreography in the laundry list of cinematic niceties that The Man Who Saved the World doesn’t really bother with; the parts of the body that get the most rigorous workout from the participants are the eyebrows and the corners of the mouth. As mentioned above, the sparring has a decidedly Shatneresque vibe to it, somewhere between drunken street fighting and really bad professional wrestling. A different, much more polished brand of cinematic combat would make its presence known in the second half of my first Fantasia double bill as I sat down to watch Boyka: Undisputed, the fourth entry in the Undisputed franchise, and the third to star English ass-kicker hors pair Scott Adkins.
Back on the outside after the events of Undisputed III, human punching machine Yuri Boyka (Adkins, still doing the world’s meanest Boris Badenov accent) has found both Jesus and a series of steady fights across the border in Ukraine. He’s on the cusp of breaking into the European MMA scene and thus starting a new crime-free chapter in his life. The problem? Boyka, fearsomely intense and laser-focused, is so preternaturally gifted at just messing dudes up that he accidentally kills his opponent in an exhibition to prove his bones. Now, “killed an opponent in the ring” as a plot device in a DTV action movie isn’t new. Hell, Boyka isn’t even the only Scott Adkins vehicle initially released in September 2016 to use that trope at the outset; Roel Reiné’s Hard Target 2 also starts off with Adkins accidentally bludgeoning an opponent to death in the ring. While Boyka doesn’t handle the fallout from the fateful fight with much nuance or elegance, it’s one of the few action movies I can think of that engages with the trauma and guilt that comes with being a human fist.
This gives the whole movie an interesting metatextual wrinkle. One of the great pleasures of the current cinema is watching Scott Adkins engage in hand-to-hand combat. Few performers are as graceful on screen as they are brutal, especially when paired with a superlative action director like Isaac Florentine, who helmed the second and third installments of the franchise. While no Florentine, Bulgarian director Todor Chapkanov proves to be a sturdy hand behind the camera here, cutting sparingly and giving the performers plenty of room to work, using speed-ramping sparsely to spice things up. There are moments of triumph and victory, but the fights are framed more like acts of contrition from someone who is cursed with the gift of carnage. Fists got Boyka into this mess, and dammit, they’ll get him out, a graceful fighter searching for the grace of God the only way he knows how.
Elsewhere, Boyka: Undisputed suffers from a lot of the same problems that plague many unfussy DTV beat-’em-ups: a cardboard-thin supporting cast, including a big bad of pedestrian nefariousness (Alon Abutbul) and a sorely underused leading lady in a one-note role (Teodora Duhovnikova), a rote screenplay, and a visual blandness when people aren’t beating the snot out of each other. But there are some grace notes to behold: prison fighter/monster heel Koshmar (Martyn Ford) has one of the great wrestling entrances this side of the WWE, coming to the ring shackled by the neck and handled by a series of guards; a goon (Hristo Petkov) engaging in a bit of goofy physical comedy after getting decked by Boyka; and a series of children’s wax crayon drawings of Boyka that show up towards the end. Soon after we see the drawings, something significant happens. Yuri starts to smile a pained, earnest smile, as if his face isn’t used to being configured like that. The way it’s framed is corny and facile, but it’s also Adkins’ most subtle acting in the film, and telling in the way it sticks out not just here, but in the whole of the ass-kicker canon. The glimmer of hope is not a stubborn scowl or a weary casting of the gaze over yonder, but a fractured, guarded upward curling of the lips, an old muscle getting a new workout.
The Man Who Saved the World; directed by Çetin Inanç; written by Cüneyt Arkin; starring Cüneyt Arkin, Aytekin Akkaya, Füsun Uçar, and Hüseyin Peyda; 91 minutes.
Boyka: Undisputed; directed by Todor Chapkanov; written by David N. White, from a story by Boaz Davidson; starring Scott Adkins, Teodora Duhovnikova, Alon Aboutboul, and Julian Vergov; 86 minutes.