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Def-Con 4
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by Jack Sommersby

"It's the Viewer Who Gets Nuked"
2 stars

Grossing a paltry $210,904 in the U.S., this is not one of those little-seen movies ripe for rediscovery, believe me.

The post-apocalyptic action tale Def-Con 4 is best described as “ramshackle” in that it’s neither exciting nor suspenseful enough to warrant a recommendation even though it’s occasionally diverting. One of those low-budget endeavors from New World Pictures, it starts out in outer space where a top-secret United States NORAD station armed with nuclear missiles has been orbiting Earth for the last fifteen months; the meager crew of three -- commander Walker (John Walsch), computer programmer Howe (Tim Choate), physician Jordan (Kate Lynch) -- are in quite the bored, enervated state until they receive a transmission that Libya has unleashed a nuclear attack on the U.S. (wait, Libya?), but the specific order to strike back can’t be confirmed due to their communications system being affected; they decide to wait, and after watching on their monitors major U.S. cities being obliterated they release all the missiles except one. Two months later, Howe, who has an estranged wife and pre-teen child back home, wants to get back to Earth to see if his family is still alive after he’s received a delayed video feed from her complaining of radioactive sickness, but he’s countermanded by Walker; then all of a sudden their escape capsule detaches itself and drops down to the Pacific Northwest coast, onto a beach wrong-side up with the hatch buried in sand. While digging their way out, Walker is violently abducted by some unseen assailants when he’s halfway out the capsule while Howe looks on in horror. With Jordan having been knocked unconscious by the rough landing, Howe finds the courage to make his way out and down a road where he stumbles upon the ghastly sight of two cannibals feasting on Walker’s corpse; he successfully gets away but a couple of miles later he triggers a booby trap on a property that temporarily incapacitates him, and he finds himself face-to-face with the nutso Vinny (Maury Chaykin), taken by gunpoint to Vinny’s hideaway, strapped to a chair and given the choice of being shot or relinquishing the six-month food supply Howe has informed him is in the capsule. Howe strikes a bargain: half the supply and he’ll divulge the location of the capsule. (Choate, who played the premature-ejaculatory sailor in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and starred as the nebbish virgin in The First Time, has a whiny voice, chipmunk looks, and zero screen presence.) Then things go even more awry: before reaching the capsule, the armored tank Vinny is driving with Howe inside is intercepted and incapacitated by a horde of militants, and Howe and Vinny, along with the now-captured Jordan, are hand-tied and marched to a dilapidated compound presided over by the megalomaniacal Gideon Hayes (Kevin King), the bratty Ivy League-school son of a prominent politician who, along with daddy’s armed henchman, survived a helicopter crash on his way to a government survival station and is desperate for information from Howe as to any remaining ones that are still operable and safe. And all the while, unbeknownst to even Howe, due to a technical glitch the remaining missile on the capsule has been activated with less than twenty-four hours before it detonates.

For a while, Def-Con 4 is fairly interesting what with its convincing etching of a bleak civilization plagued by disease and famine (the movie, with its all-encompassing doom-laden gray skies, was shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia), and writer/director Paul Donovan’s eye for quirky detail. The pacing is assured so you’re not likely to be bored, and when the sociopathic Gideon, who’s just ordered the execution of four people, tries justifying his tyranny with “You think I’m ruthless because I want to be. It’s the only way to administer limited resources in an unstable situation” it earns a deserved smirk from us. But Donovan doesn’t put enough fertile ideas in motion for an organic vision. The movie resembles the brilliant 1975 A Boy and His Dog, minus the acrid wit and imagination of that cult classic; there, director L.Q. Jones, adapting a novella by the renowned Harlan Ellison, gave us scathing social commentary, colorful characters, stunning widescreen composition, black humor, and all of it dexterously blended so we took undiluted pleasure in watching something that was well thought-out and all of a whole. It also possessed an engaging hero (Don Johnson’s horny scavenger) and formidable villain (Jason Robards’ freedoms-depriving totalitarian), whereas Def-Con 4 has second-raters Choate and King giving us a hero without force and a villain without menace -- when they face off, it’s like watching fraternity brothers arguing who’s going to go out to get the pizza on a rainy night. It’s never clear why the survivors rally behind a college punk like Gideon in the first place, why they’re bound to him since he keeps his scarce food supply only for himself and his second-in-command; yes, the two of them are armed with guns, but so are the underlings who, given their considerable numbers, could easily revolt if they chose. Too much of the time Donovan paints in broad strokes when we’d like more substance to get our own reading on things; it’s not that the movie is highly derivative, but that Donovan hasn’t put much of an individualistic stamp on the proceedings so we could take it seriously as something other than a generic imitation of standouts of this subgenre. (George Miller’s The Road Warrior was practically contextless, but it had enough verve for ten movies; and in James Cameron’s The Terminator, the ten or so minutes of the futuristic flashbacks packed much more of a punch than Def-Con 4 manages in all its eighty-eight minutes.) Even more unfortunate, Donovan’s directing isn’t any more impressive than his writing. Though he employed a top editor in Todd Ramsay (The Thing) and his eye for composition is adequate, the action sequences offer very little in the way of coherent spatial logistics and are clunkily staged, especially the finale onboard a sailboat that’s poorly crosscut with the last remaining minutes of the missile ticking off, and when it does finally detonate, Donovan cheats by limiting its blast radius for the sake of a happy ending. Harmless but superficial, Def-Con 4 is more a whimper than a bang.

The DVD from those reliable folks at Anchor bay Entertainment sports excellent video and a theatrical trailer.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19772&reviewer=327
originally posted: 02/27/15 17:15:18
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  15-Mar-1985 (R)



Directed by
  Paul Donovan

Written by
  Paul Donovan

  Tim Choate
  Maury Chaykin
  Kate Lynch
  Kevin King
  John Walsch

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