Tuesday, March 22, 2016

B-Movie Review: "Going Bananas" (1987)

It's a Cannon family production from the cocaine-fueled '80s starring Dom Deluise, J.J. from Good Times and a talking monkey ... that can also fly airplanes and jump 30 feet in a single bound. 

By: Jimbo X

Sometime in the 1980s, Cannon Film Group co-founder Menahem Golan met with the handlers of Clyde the orangutan - Clint Eastwood's co-star from Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose - to discuss a potential movie deal. As immortalized in the fantastic 2015 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, before Golan made a decision on whether or not to ink Clyde's contract, he turned to his publicist and asked her the most important question anyone could ask a media relations subordinate:  

"Would you fuck this monkey?

And from her reply stems Going Bananas, a downright bizarre - yes, bizarre even for the 1980s - family opus that makes even colossal genre misfires like Nukie and Mac and Me look like subdued G-rated offerings by comparison. As you probably guessed, no, Golan never locked Clyde down to a picture deal, so instead, he did what any Israeli B-movie kingpin worth his (Dead Sea?) salt would've: he hired a midget, put him in a chimp suit and said "good enough."

Alternately known as My African Adventure, the flick - brought to us by the same folks who gave us such immortal B-movie classics as The Last American Virgin, Cobra and of course, Death Wishes two through four - is a rare detour from the notorious production company's usual slate of hyper-violent neo-conservative revenge dramas and cornball ninja opuses. Alas, while the film lacks bare breasts and/or Chuck Norris shooting Viet Cong rebels or invading Ruskies in the face at point-blank range with missile launchers, the film does make up for it - to a certain extent - with one of the weirdest premises for any family flick ever. 

One of these actors went on to a have a lengthy,
respectable career as a bit player in several big budget
Hollywood productions. The other is Dom Deluise.
The film starts with a shirtless kid named Benjamin (no, the film isn't directed by the same guy who did Clownhouse, thankfully) walking around on a boat. The captain tells him that Africa is beautiful, despite being - and I quote - "the darkest and cruelest" of continents. That's our cue for Benjamin's overprotective guardian - played by THE DOM DELUISE - to enter the fray. He tells the kid that wearing slippers won't be enough to save him from the perils that await them in Africa and makes Benjamin put on a coat. Then the captain tells them their safari guide will probably wind up eating them. 

Flash ahead to an unnamed village in an unnamed country, with elephants running around everywhere and people chanting and blowing fire like circus acts and selling baby tigers at the market like they were run-of-the-mill vegetables. Enter our safari guide, Mozambo the Second - or just plain Mo, for short - who welcomes Fatso and the wide-eyed youngster to the plains. Oh and the tour guide is played by none other than Jimmie "JJ from Good Times" Walker, which already makes this the greatest ensemble cast in movie history.

We learn Benjamin is the son of a U.S. senator and Dom does all sorts of racist shit, like spray disinfectant all over Mo's cab and nearly trample a woman lugging around bananas to death for no discernible reason. Then an old white hobo and all the villager kids start chasing after Mo's cab, because I guess there isn't a whole lot going on in Africa, circa 1985.

A police car shows up, even thought it's really just a normal blue car with a sticker on the side reading "police." Enter a corrupt official and an old white dude in a pimp suit who appears to be an exotic animal trade kingpin. He bribes the official, who tries to sell him a snake while he is at it. Uh, I guess they are supposed to be the film's central bad guys, I take it? 

We get stock footage of giraffes and zebras and gazelles rollicking about in the savannah, followed up by a long sequence where a lion hops on top of the taxi/jeep and its tail keeps disturbing Dom while he tries to take a nap. The kid asks to stop so he can go see some monkeys and an elephant steals Dom's lunch.

Dom's rifle accidentally goes off and the monkeys flee. But one appears to get injured while jumping out of a tree. The kid rescues the primate - which is obviously a midget inside a monkey costume - and the simian won't stop following them. He chases the jeep, and Dom sprays the monkey with bug repellant. Dom throws an apple at him (I assume it is a him, anyway) and the monkey retaliates by kissing him full on the lips like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Following some completely needless footage of ostriches running in slow-motion, the jeep crashes. Dom loses a tooth in the collision, so Mo takes him to visit the village witch doctor (err, witch dentist, I suppose), who wouldn't you know it, is also Mo's uncle. In one of the weirdest scenes in any children's movie ever, Dom receives a shot of "novocaine" via blow-dart and and the witch dentist slowly jams a primitive looking drill - powered by a morbidly obese villager on a bicycle - into his mouth. It may not be as freaky as the boat ride in Willy Wonka, but it is nonetheless some seriously disturbing fare for a kids' flick. 

Is it just me, or does he kind of look like Danzig a little?
The monkey steals more of Dom's food (noticing a pattern here?) and at a check point, the monkey starts, well, monkeying with some gun-toting guards whom, naturally, suspects the trio are animal traffickers. The three are taken to the office of the corrupt police guy from earlier, who lets them go but keeps the monkey. Of course, the monkey goes on a rampage (among other HIGH-larious bits, he steals the official's toupee) and escapes. He reunites with his three human pals, who - for absolutely no discernible reason whatsoever - decide to dress him up like an old woman and take him to a fancy restaurant. 

The waiter doesn't understand what Dom means when he says he is so hungry he could eat a horse and then the monkey slaps the shit out of a dude who tries to sexually harass it. It hides under a table and keeps stealing the police official's cake. His dinner date - a circus owner who keeps talking about how he needs a new star attraction - takes note as the ape starts swinging from the ceiling fan and stealing even more people's toupees. Naturally, this leads to an all out donnybrook, with people getting hit over the head with trays and glasses being thrown all over the place - complete with Dom hopping on a table like a see-saw and using his tremendous girth to send a man flying outside a window like a rocket ship. 

The four are arrested again, but for people locked in a dungeon in a third world prison state, they seem to be taking it rather well. Ben decides to name the monkey Bonzo - boy, I wonder where he got THAT name from? - who can now pronounce the word "banana." Dom knocks out a guard and the four make a run for it. JJ and Dom get apprehended, but Ben (who really does look a lot like Frankie Munoz) and Bonzo manage to evade the authorities.

Ben buys a ticket for another safari to Bonzo's old refuge. JJ and Dom are released from prison and return to their taxi\jeep ... which, despite being unattended out in the city streets for hours, hasn't been robbed blind. Ben and Bonzo frolic in the jungle, with the monkey declaring his love for the young boy. As in, he literally tells him "Bonzo loves Ben." 

They swing from trees together while majestic, romantic music plays. Then, Ben falls into a crevice and is knocked unconscious. Scorpions start crawling all over him, and for some reason, even after he regains cognizance of his surroundings he is unable to, you know, just sort of brush them off his shirt. Bonzo lowers a vine into the crevice, saves Ben from the arachnids (or are the crustaceans?) and lifts him out of the abyss with a makeshift pulley. Bonzo gets Ben some water and, hey, what do you know, here comes Dom and JJ just in the nick of time. 

The kid has a fever so they take him to a mission hospital. Bonzo visits him and rubs Ben's forehead and sings a song about how much he loves him. Police raid the hospital and try to locate Ben and the monkey. Bonzo is apprehended and taken to the circus, where Ben instantly spray both his circus captor and the police chief with seltzer. 

Ben gets some ice cream and watches a circus parade go down the street. Of course, the main attraction is Bonzo, and watching him pulled around in a chain with a choker around his neck makes him cry. Uh ... symbolism, much

Of course the monkey can fly a plane. I mean, if he can
speak English and jump 30 feet in the air, he might as well
have the fundamentals of aviation down, too. 
The trio breaks into the carnival - with FUCKIN' rifles. Even the kid is packing a long gun. The pimp suit-clad animal slugger from earlier introduces the clowns, who, of course, are Dom, Ben and JJ. They do a routine and the police realize they are impostors and that's when the three begin their efforts to reclaim the monkey.

The other circus performers chase after them, leading to some high-flying shenanigans with the trapeze artists - complete with Bonzo attempting to KILL several pursuers by dropping 50 pound sandbags on their heads. Everybody cheers when the monkey rides a horse (an ode to Planet of the Apes, perhaps?) and he does some slow-motion trampoline stuff for no reason whatsoever. 

The three run towards a plane while police shoot at them. They skyjack the ride and the circus people continue to chase after them in their cars. Oh, and I should probably note this: THE FUCKING MONKEY SOMEHOW KNOWS HOW TO FLY AN AIRCRAFT. 

The three make it back to the port, with the local villagers still chasing after the biplane probably because they haven't had food in a while but all these people care about is their damn selves and their monkey and they are too distracted to realize all of the poverty going on around them. Dom tells Mo to come visit him in NYC, but he won't because Central Park is too dangerous - burn!

Ben wants Bonzo to come to the States with him, but Mo tells him he has to stay in Africa because it his home (uh, is that supposed to be taken as something of a pro-segregation message?) There is a tearful farewell, but it is interrupted by the circus people, who are running over fruit carts in cars that almost look like the General Lee, but not quite. Bonzo hides in a vase, an elephant sprays the circus owners with bacteria-soaked mucus and Bonzo bops the animal smuggler over the head with a gourd ... AND THEN HE LEAPS 30 FEET ACROSS A HARBOR INTO BEN'S BOAT. With Dom, Ben and Bonzo on the boat, Mo flies overhead on a biplane. We get a fade-out keyhole shot of Bonzo saying goodbye, and a final freeze frame of Ben and Bonzo hugging as the end credits doth roll. 

Shockingly, Going Bananas wasn't the E.T.-sized hit Cannon anticipated. I couldn't find any hard data on the film's box office take, but I think it is safe to assume it was pretty low. Calling the movie's reception tepid would be a gross understatement; as of March 2016, the flick has an incredibly low IMDB score of 2.8 out of 10. For comparative purposes, Uwe Boll's BloodRayne, that disastrous 3D "re-imagining" of Night of the Living Dead from 2012 and even the cult 1950s misfire Robot Monster chalked up at least a 2.9. 

The film itself, obviously, is based on Tamar Burstein's story Ben, Bonzo and Big Bad Joe (which, yes, was the same inspiration for the much-maligned Ronald Reagan movie Bedtime for Bonzo, you probably already deduced.) It was helmed by Israeli director Boaz Davidson, whose directorial oeuvre includes guilty pleasure sleaze-ball '80s mini-classics Hospital Massacre and The Last American Virgin, although he has probably had more success as a producer, having worked on films like the Nic Cage The Wicker Man remake and the 2008 Rambo re-do.

You really don't need me to tell you about career trajectories of Dom and JJ, but you might be surprised to know the actor who played Ben, David Mendenhall, went on to do a ton of voice work for a whole host of crappy late-80s cartoons, including The Centurions and Potato Head Kids. Oh, and he also played Sly Stallone's kid in Over the Top, a role that earned him not one but TWO Razzie Awards for lackluster acting. Really, the only person connected to the film that's had consistent film work since was the guy who portrayed Bonzo - Kenyan actor (and Warwick Davis stunt double!) Gurdeep Roy, who played ALL of the Oompa-Loompas in the 2005 Willy Wonka reboot and Keenser in the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. 

So, yeah, there really isn't much left to say about the movie. It's a crappy, poorly-made, poorly-acted and poorly-paced film that hardly feels like it had much of a script (which, considering it was "penned" by Cannon head honcho Menahem Golan, probably isn't too far from the truth.) Even compared to the really, really bad "family movies" from the epoch - yes, even stuff like Nukie - it just feels flat and lifeless. There's really nothing nostalgic about the film whatsoever, no Reagan-era trappings that evoke even the subtlest sense of retro-reverence. Instead, it's just a boring, indistinguishable, extremely droning C-movie that's ONLY notable for it's weird cast and haphazardly structured narrative ... and yes, one extraordinarily creepy-looking monkey. 

Take it from a guy who has spent more hours watching bad movies on purpose than most professional film critics have spent watching any type of movie - Going Bananas isn't just bad, it's the absolute worst kind of bad; the wholly unremarkable kind of awful that's not just inept and amateurish, but altogether uninteresting. 

An amusing terrible movie - i.e., something like International Guerrillas - is one thing, but downright boring terrible movies like Going Bananas? Not only is it a waste of 90 minutes, it's waste of carbon, electricity and - pending how deeply you try to invest yourself into the numb-skull narrative - perfectly good brain cells, to boot. 

So is there any rational reason to see this movie? Well, outside of witnessing how to not make a low-budget cash-in, I can't think of anything. No matter your impetus for screening Going Bananas, however, I can assure you this: you sure as hell won't be entertained by anything you witness. 

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