Invading the U.S.A. and then going M.I.A. – A Love Letter to THE CANNON GROUP, Ninja Domination, Breakdancin’, Aliens, Stereotypes, Americanism, the Splits and the Superheroes of the 1980s

Warning: If you do not like reading lengthy pieces of nothingness, this tribute to the Cannon Group is not for you.

The all-too familiar logo of the (in)famous Cannon Group.

With the Richard Lynch retrospective going on right now, my empty promises made for another segment dealing with the action movie and politics, and my review for Invasion U.S.A. (1985) coming up, I thought I’d take a short look at one of the eminent B-movie houses in American history: the Cannon Group. The Cannon Group (hereby used interchangeably with “the Group” and “Golan-Globus” and “Cannon Films” and “Cannon”) is no secret, really. Cult film fans and B-movie lovers have probably perused Cannon’s library with fervor and chances are that even if you don’t know the Group by name you’ve seen one of their films or, at least, heard of one. How can I mention Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo without eliciting a laugh from at least one person?

Above: Lucinda Dickey as Kelly and Adolfo Quinones as Ozone, in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984).
A sequel to Cannon’s first major box office hit, Breakin’. Breakin’ 2 was actually released in the very same year, eight months later, proving Cannon’s ability to work around very short production schedules (whether or not that is reflected in the quality is another story).

Cannon was one of a number of independent and, dare I say, B-movie studios that were phenomenally successful in the highly-competitive market of the 1980s. Most Cannon Films felt like Cannon Films. With few exceptions, the 1980s Cannon Films all had a certain look and feel to them thanks in part to the fact that most of them were produced by two individuals: Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. So what was the secret to their success? Were there any secrets? Why do so many of their films, even down to the ones that are simply horrible, have such endearing cult followings?

Cannon’s rise to its status as one of the most successful independent film studios of the 1980s is really no secret. Their films were an embodiment of the 1980s, and, in a way, it’s impossible to talk about that decade of cinema without talking about Cannon Films. This was helped by both Golan and Globus’ own attitudes and political beliefs, most of which mirrored the zeitgeist of the 1980s. The political reflection of the films was also buoyed by a market which saw the exploitation film migrate from the drive-ins and grindhouses to theaters nationwide, the rise of high-concept filmmaking, the popularity of sci-fi and action, and the recent phenomenon, at the time, of the home video market. While the films’ embodiment of the 1980s was the primary reason for success, this would not have been possible without the highly competitive market of the 1980s providing avenues (in both theaters and at home) for film distribution.

Unfortunately, many of the reasons which led to the success of Golan-Globus were also their downfall. Changing times, bad financial decisions, and too much ambition eventually unraveled the web holding the Cannon Group together. And, yes, that is a thinly-veiled reference to the failed Spider-Man movie, a prime example of their hubris and bad decision-making. Cannon was as famous (or infamous) for its successes as it was for its failures.

Above: Menahem Golan (left) and Yoram Globus (right) in 1983.
Known for their unrestrained and outgoing nature, Golan was the creative half, Globus the business one.

Cannon was founded in 1967, long before it would come into the prominence that they are these days known for. It was first incorporated in New York in October of that year by Dennis Friedland and Christopher C. Dewey. By 1970, the Group looked quite prosperous. They had managed to co-produce and distribute some British films like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Beast in the Cellar and had managed a hit with their own Joe, starring a young Peter Boyle and directed by future Rocky director, John G. Avildsen.

Above: poster for The Beast in the Cellar.
If you notice, the poster for this 1970 film has the trademark Cannon logo on it, around ten years before the company would become property of Golan and Globus.

Made on a tight budget, Joe was such a huge success that it even surprised the producing duo, with Dewey admitting that “we didn’t think it was going to do this well”. Dewey was so optimistic about the company’s futures that he stated that Cannon would be the “new United Artists”. I don’t think they ever got that far, but, hell, I guess Cannon could and should be proud of the notoriety it’s gotten now.

Cannon had managed to succeed thanks to its small budgets and in 1970 they’d expected six or eight films with a combined budget of $2,000,000. Most of their films up to this point had been successful pretty much because they’d been able to outgross their budgets by many times. For instance, the duo had produced Inga (directed by sexploitation great Joseph W. Sarno) for a mere $50,000 (about $310,000 in 2010 dollars) and made a whopping $4,000,000 (almost $25,000,000 in 2010 dollars).

Above: Marie Liljedahl as the titular Inga (1968).

The 1970s were not kind to the original Cannon duo. They made a string of unsuccessful films, coupled with changes in taxation laws regarding film production and other bad investments, led to a severe drop in their stock price. Their distribution deals did not fare any better. Their 1970s films have remained fairly obscure, with few garnering little, if any, cult followings. Unlike Golan and Globus, Friedland and Dewey were not able to capture the mood of the 1970s in their films; this, along with the reasons above, was what forced them to cede their company to Golan-Globus.

Above: still from Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976).
One of the few films that Cannon solely produced during this period.

Above: poster for Mako: Jaws of Death (1976).
Riding the Jaws bandwagon, this Cannon-distributed film was a disaster in every sense of the word.

Into this breach entered two Israeli cousins: Menahem Golan (b. 1929) and Yoram Globus (b. 1941), who bought out the company from Friedland and Dewey in 1979; Wikipedia says for $500,000, another source says $350,000. Menahem Globus was a fiercely patriotic Israeli, who had fought in the War of Independence and had changed his name to Golan for patriotic reasons in 1948 (in reference to the Golan Heights). He had, at one time, worked for independent legend Roger Corman. Globus was pretty much born into a cinematic heritage, his parents having been the owners of their own cinema. Both he and Yoram were veterans of the film industry. In fact, neither of them was a stranger at all to the Cannon Group.

Both cousins had actually done extensive filmmaking prior to taking reign over Cannon and have been touted as the two that singlehandedly saved the Israeli film industry. In 1962, the cousins partnered to create company Noah Films, initially to produce their debut film, El Dorado (1963; Golan’s directorial debut). Golan would handle the creative side and Globus would handle the financial side, a relationship that would continue alike into the Cannon era. After failing to secure funding from Corman for $30,000, they managed to finance it through the Israeli government. Thus, a producing partnership was born.

Above: still from Sallah Shabati (1964).
This film would prove to be the major boost Golan, Globus and Noah Films needed.

El Dorado would become a major box office success in Israel. Their follow-up film, Sallah Shabati (1964), would prove even more successful. Not only was it a commercial breakthrough, it was also nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, and won a Golden Globe. A string of films would follow throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Some, such as Trunk of Cairo (1966), produced in part by another independent legend Samuel Z. Arkoff, were unsuccessful. Others, such as 1977’s Operation Thunderbolt, were hugely successful in their native Israel, garnering another Academy Award nomination in 1978.

Above: the beautiful Sybil Danning and, well, insane Klaus Kinski in Operation Thunderbolt (1977).
A sort of precursor to Cannon’s The Delta Force (1986), the pro-Israeli Golan and Globus produced this film that was based on the events of Operation Entebbe.

Produced by non-Cannon Golan and Globus, Operation Thunderbolt would be distributed in Israel through Cannon Film Distributers. In fact, many of their films would be distributed through Cannon Films. Films such Kid Vengeance (1977) and Going Steady (1979) would be distributed through the US by Cannon. Perhaps the most infamous example was their bizarre The Apple, a disco rock opera sci-fi musical film; maybe the first “real” Cannon picture from Golan-Globus. Made in West Germany in 1979, the same year they took control of Cannon, the film did not actually enjoy a theatrical run (albeit limited) in the United States until November of 1980.

Above: still from The Apple (1980).
 The “first” film from Golan-Globus’ Cannon, The Apple was made the same year they acquired Cannon, but not released until late 1980. The Apple has since become a minor cult classic.

The initial stages in Hollywood and America weren’t easy going for them. They found they were not included at social gatherings and quite literally had doors slammed in their faces. Apparently the Oscar nominations and a controlling stake in Cannon Films weren’t enough and they often contemplated returning to Israel, where they had been successful. But their drive and ambition (the same drive and ambition which would later tragically be their downfall) would not allow them to quit. I think it’s pretty clear what happened next.

The duo ended up taking the world by storm. Described by Patrick Runkle as “B-movie superheroes”, neither Golan nor Globus were daunted by low budgets, shoddy scripts, bad production values, short shooting schedules, subject matter or lack of critical acclaim. The two were only a handful of producers who fully understood the 1980s, mostly because they themselves abided by the political and social zeitgeists of the times. It wasn’t so much that they were bloody geniuses that made them successful, but that their attitudes complemented the era so perfectly that their relationship with the 1980s became almost symbiotic.

While many independent film studios at this time were “going Hollywood”, such as Carolco Pictures and Orion Pictures, Golan-Globus, along with Roger Corman (New World Pictures), Lloyd Kaufman/Michael Herz (Troma Entertainment), and Charles Band (Empire Pictures and Full Moon), were a few of the famous and, in their case, incredibly successful independents that managed to retain a distinct identity, one that allowed them to stick out in a crowd. This was the 1980s, a period of intense competition between film studios.

The Cannon Group soon began to produce, distribute and release a wide variety of films. While they were primarily known for their B-style 1980s-reflecting action films, Cannon delved into a disparate number of genres, and also released and distributed critically-acclaimed foreign cinema into American theaters and homes; a notable example of this was Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984; released into the US in 1985). Among the many genres that managed to attain cult followings after Cannon’s ultimate demise included the ninja film, music/dance, and science fiction.

Above: a still from The Company of Wolves (directed by Neil Jordan; 1984).
This well-shot visually-impressive fantasy was an example of a critically-acclaimed film Cannon would distribute Stateside.

Cannon was known as a B-movie house, usually as a term of endearment, but also used by many in a disparaging sense. While most of the Cannon oeuvre reflected its era and its audience’s tastes and desires, the strange thing about Cannon Films was that they did prove time and again that they were, indeed, capable of producing films that were above the typical Cannon fare. Otello (1986), Barfly (1987), and Runaway Train (1985) were all up for plenty of prestigious film awards. While Golan and Globus preferred to stay close to their winning method, these films exemplified a duo that was capable of producing more than just the typical genre film.

Above: Jon Voight as Oscar “Manny” Manheim in Runaway Train (1985).
Adapted from a Kurosawa screenplay, this is an extremely underrated film that managed to elevate itself above typical Cannon fare, thanks to its strong script, amazing performances, flawless editing, tight and efficient direction, and a lot of philosophical undertones.

Why was Cannon so successful? What were Golan and Globus doing that Friedland and Dewey had failed to? I’d say that Golan and Globus were smart, yes, and very shrewd, but they weren’t film or financial geniuses by any measure. Golan-Globus did know how to tap into the zeitgeist of the 1980s, something Friedland and Dewey had failed to do for their respective 1970s. But the Cannon of the 1980s, especially Golan’s own political views, perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist of the 1980s. This is partly why neither Golan nor Globus were as phenomenally successful before or after their tenure at Cannon, and it is why Cannon did not make it successfully into the 1990s. There were several other factors (such as bad decision-making) that I’ll get to in a second, but let’s just look, for a second, at Cannon’s successful run.

Missing in Action, for instance, a Chuck Norris-starring Reagan-worshiping Asian-killing Rambo-“inspired” Vietnam War pic grossed nearly $25,000,000, and was the most successful independent film feature of 1984. In fact, with revenues reaching in excess of $150,000,000 in 1986, the company was the most prosperous independent film company for a time, ahead of legends like Roger Corman (New World Pictures) and Charles Band (Empire Pictures). I reason that the duo was so popular because of two things: they knew how to tap into the 1980s market, but, also, that their own sense of personal values and pro-Israeli, and, by extension, pro-American (this was the 1980s, after all) patriotism were well in line of the general consensus of the times.

Above: Chuck Norris (as Colonel James Braddock) in Missing in Action (1984).
“Inspired” by James Cameron’s script for Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cannon released both Missing in Action and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985) prior to the First Blood sequel, to avoid copyright violation lawsuits. Both films were huge box office successes for Cannon.

Many of the Go-Go Boys’ (as they were known to be called) films, especially their action pics, reflected the general attitudes of Reagan-era America. Films like Invasion U.S.A. (1985) and The Delta Force (1986), both of which starred Cannon mainstay and all-American hero, Chuck Norris, were a mirror to the attitudes and consensuses of the times. Invasion U.S.A. featured a shadowy group of right-wing fears threatening American soil, while The Delta Force harkened back to the cousins’ previous Operation Thunderbolt, with a hijacked airliner, generic Mideast terrorists and badass Americanism.

Above: armed Lebanese terrorists hijack an American Travelways ATW Flight 282, in The Delta Force (1986).

Above: Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris as ass-kicking Americans in The Delta Force (1986).

Even films that were not as blatant as the aforementioned still reeked of Reaganism. Death Wish 3 probably epitomized this tradition. Whereas the original Death Wish featured Paul Kersey who may have been reluctant to participate in vigilantism, and explored the grey area of morality, while capturing the rather depressing political mood, antigovernment and anti-authority attitudes of the 1970s, with no real heroes, Death Wish 3 perfectly captures the individual everyman’s titanic struggle between good-and-evil of the 1980s. One of my ultimate favorite over-the-top unintentionally-hilarious insanity flicks, Death Wish 3 (coincidentally released the same year as Commando) featured an aged Charles Bronson at war with tenement scum with no regard for moral order or law. In the end, Charles Bronson could do nothing more than blow up the bad guy with his mail-ordered M72 LAW, after one of the most insane third acts ever.

Above: Charles Bronson (as Paul Kersey) with the M72 LAW in Death Wish 3 (1985).
The law always triumphs, especially if the LAW stands for light anti-tank weapon.
This ludicrously-insane Reagan-loving action film has to be seen to be believed.

To put this all in short perspective: Cannon’s action pics of the 1980s dominated and were so well-liked because they were a reflection of the sociopolitical zeitgeist of the times. Even one of their biggest latter-day successes, Bloodsport, was a capitalization of the 1980s. Featuring a young goofy-grinned Van Damme, some not-so-hidden homoeroticism and an abundance of non-white stereotypes, the endeared Bloodsport might have been a box office success, but it was also a sign that Golan-Globus might not be able to keep up with changing times. This is one reason why Cannon failed to breach the 1990s. Their films seemed outdated, hokey, dare I say, childish (in terms of the notion of good and bad, anyway) and way too jingoistic by then.

Above: Chong Li (Bolo Yeung) and Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) Duxing it out in Bloodsport (1988), which would prove to be one of Cannon’s final successes.

Above: Michel Qissi as the incomparable Tong Po and Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloane in the original Kickboxer (1989). Extremely similar to the previous Bloodsport and, indeed, to the rest of the Cannon oeuvre (in terms of style, stereotypes and subtlety), this Cannon-distributed film proved to be another latter-day success.

Cannon’s style was not relegated to just the action film. In fact, newcomers to the Cannon library will probably not be surprised to find out that two people were responsible for the majority of the output. Golan-Globus’ hamfisted approach – a clumsy, yet endearing style – the lack of subtlety, the goofiness and apparent naivety, corny overacting (or, in a lot of cases, underacting), the abundance of 1980s styles and stereotypes, black-and-white interpretations of good and bad, and the favoritism towards the social and political norms of the day allowed the Group to attain a distinct sort of style that became familiar to its viewers. Dean Brandum even pointed to the logo as something that wholly reflected the 1980s: efficient, synthetic, and functional; and described the visual style of the cousins as “cinematic brutalism”: cold, fluorescent and lots of concrete.

Above: Tony / Turbo (Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers) famously broom-dancing in Breakin’ (1984).
The scene above exemplifies the Cannon aesthetic. This film also showed Cannon as wholly of the 1980s, when they attempted to cash in on the growing hip hop culture. The mid-1980s also saw the release of similar and competing films like Beat Street, Wild Style, and Krush Groove.

Above: lobby card of Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremolo in yet another Van Damme Cannon Film, Cyborg (1989). This low budget ($500,000) action movie, directed by B-movie king Albert Pyun, featured a post-apocalyptic world of ripped muscular bodies, good and evil, kickass sunglasses, cold, concrete and fluorescence.

But while Cannon’s genre films almost always amounted to heavy-handed rip-offs with an exploitation twist, sometimes they did try to set trends. Two examples of this would be the ninja film and the superhero movie. Ninjas had been around for awhile in Japanese films, but would not be introduced heavily into North America until the cousins came along with their very own Enter the Ninja, which suspiciously sounded a lot like that non-ninja Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon. While they were predated one year by The Octagon, starring their own Chuck Norris, if it wasn’t for Golan-Globus and their myriad of ninja flicks, we might not have a genre to disparage today (although I suppose Godfrey Ho has to get a lot of the blame, as well). Thus, with the help of Sho Kosugi they almost singlehandedly managed to kick off a ninja film craze in the 1980s that I’m not sure really ended, but isn’t really around anymore (thank god).

Above: Sho Kosugi (as Hasegawa) in Enter the Ninja (1981).
The first of many ridiculous Cannon Films featuring badass ninja.

Above: Michael Dudikoff as Joe Armstrong and Judie Aronson as Patricia Hickok in American Ninja. Directed by Cannon mainstay and apparently a ninja film extraordinaire Sam Firstenberg, American Ninja was probably the more famous of Cannon’s ninja films. A box office success, it fared even better on home video.

Cannon Films and, indeed, other independents thrived in this period not only do to the bevy of low budget theatrical releases, but the new advent of home video. We’re kind of spoiled today: the DVDs, Blu-Rays, video-on-demand, downloading, etc., things which have become normalcy in our lives, probably would have had filmgoers thirty years ago creaming their pants. Hell, for many of us, renting from brick-and-mortar stores seems like only yesterday. So you could imagine the hubbub when home video started to become increasingly popular in the late 1970s. Soon, both theatrically-successful films and box office bombs began finding a new place in the home; many of these movies began to attain huge cult followings thanks, in part, to the home video. American Ninja, a Cannon success, earned an additional $28,917,430 in rentals.

Above: Dennis Hopper as “Lefty” Enright in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
Although a box office success, it failed to make a substantial profit for the studio. However, the film was very successful on VHS and is now considered a cult classic.

I’ve remarked numerous times before that the 1980s was a period marked by intense competition. Exploitation films of the past had been relegated mostly to specialty theaters, midnight showings, grindhouses, and drive-ins. With the rise of high-concept filmmaking, a bevy of fresh filmmakers (“fresh”, not necessarily “good”), and the increasing popularity of action and science fiction (due in part to Star Wars and Alien), there was suddenly an increasing demand from filmgoers to see such films in theaters and, as aforementioned, on home video. Timing is everything, and for Golan and Globus, the time was just right.

Tiny cracks began appearing in the dam, however. The Cannon Group became so prosperous that they began attracting big name stars. Perhaps the biggest name they managed to attract was Sylvester Stallone. Cobra was the first. It was a pure ‘80s action flick with plenty of cheese, one-liners, violence, and it was Cannon all the way. It was also a box office success. Enticed by a $12,000,000 salary, a lofty sum, Stallone agreed to return to star in the Cannon production of a Golan-directed film, Over the Top. Stallone was one of the biggest box office draws at that point, having done Rambo: First Blood Part II (the film that Golan-Globus had ripped off to make their own Missing in Action) and Rocky IV (another pro-American patriotic Cold War era Reagan masterpiece, albeit pure Hollywood). The success of Cobra  (which was actually intended to be Stallone’s Beverly Hills Cop) convinced the cousins to reinvest in their bankable action star.

Above: Marco Rodriguez as the Supermarket Killer, in Cobra (1986).
Notice the fetishization of the huge gun. Pure 1980s.

Alas, Over the Top proved a bit too much, and the film ended up being both a box office and critical disaster. Unfairly, but probably realistically, referred to as a Rocky movie with arm-wrestling, the film proved to be a sign of things to come. Over the Top is one of my ultimate guilty pleasures, and I don’t feel guilty about it at all. Want to see a film where a father and son’s bond is rekindled by the power of arm-wrestling? This is your film. Featuring pro arm wrestlers, like Rick Zumwalt, and set in that time in the 1980s when anyone could be cool, including video game players, coolers/bouncers, and acrobatic bartenders. It’s pure 1980s cheese, right down to the Kenny Loggins soundtrack contribution and the appearance of Terry Funk.

Above: Rick Zumwalt as Bob “Bull” Hurley (left) and Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawk, in Over the Top (1987). With a budget of approximately $25,000,000, the film managed to recoup only $16,057,580 domestically.

This was a foreshadowing that the success would soon be mired, with blame going to changing times and tastes, along with some bad financial decisions. In short, instead of becoming “too big to fail”, they were becoming too big for their britches. In 1985, for instance, Cannon produced 23 films, more than any other studio in the United States. They managed to acquire production and distribution company, Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, and the sixth largest theater chain in the country, Commonwealth Theaters. Ostensibly a good move, the reality was that in the process they managed to incur very high producing costs and high debts. While they were able to bounce back in 1986, it was only a precursor of the troubles ahead.

Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! Oh God!
This Norman Mailer-directed Norman Mailer story, produced in conjunction with Francis Ford Coppola was a box office disaster, grossing $858,250 against its $5 million budget.
(Above: Debra Sandlund and Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance [1987].)

Above: Louise Fletcher as Mrs. McKeltch in Invaders from Mars (1986).
This remake, penned in part by Dan O’Bannon and directed by Tobe Hooper, was another box office failure, budgeted $12 million and making only $4,984,663.

The problem was that Cannon was way too ambitious for its own good and neither Golan nor Globus, though savvy producers, had the financial wizardry of, say, Roger Corman (who I really need to set aside a proper tribute to). Roger Corman, the man who “never lost a dime” on any of his pictures, and another producer who made several (read: tons of) cult pictures in the 1980s (Battle Beyond the Stars, Galaxy of Terror, Warlords of the 21st Century, Deathstalker) was apparently not as successful as Golan-Globus, overall. But Roger Corman had longevity because he knew how to tap into respective markets and not be impeded by his own political agenda or outrageous behavior. He also made good financial decisions. Corman, by his own admission, only actually lost money on one of his films: The Intruder (1960). He considers it to be his best film. Even after Hollywood stole his method and began producing “B”-movies on a large scale, he was still able to adapt and hit back.

I’ve no doubt that Golan and Globus, like Corman, loved cinema. Also don’t get me wrong: filmmakers taking chances? We probably don’t see much of that these days. Golan-Globus did it all the time. Unfortunately, in a sort of perverted irony, it seemed like that love would be their ultimate undoing. Apparently, Golan was the creative side, and Globus was the business half. Up until, say, the mid-1980s, neither side had made any colossal blunders, though both could take the blame for some mishaps. That would soon change. Cannon’s financial problems were exacerbated by an ambition that was too grand for either cousin’s good. Cannon had become so big, and perhaps so deluded, by the mid-1980s that they began making huge announcements on big projects that failed to deliver on their promises. For instance, Lifeforce (1985) was dubbed “the cinematic sci-fi event of the ‘80s” and Masters of the Universe (1987), “the Star Wars of the ‘80s”. Neither film delivered.

Above: Frank Finlay, Peter Firth, and Michael Gothard in Lifeforce (1985).
Another Tobe Hooper / Dan O’Bannon collaboration, Lifeforce (1985) was Cannon’s attempt at creating a major blockbuster. With a pretty huge budget of $25,000,000 (compare this to next year’s Aliens, whose budget was $18,500,000), Lifeforce was a huge gamble for Golan-Globus that, unfortunately, did not pay off.
It’s still a pretty insane film.

Above: Frank Langella as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe (1987), nemesis of homoerotic He-Man Dolph Lundgren. The film was a box office failure and a critical bomb.

Faced with their rising production costs and high debts was an output that could not match its ambition. It seems that both halves of the creative team were faltering on their promises. Golan’s production side seemed to be driving away potential audiences, while Globus’ business side seemed be royally screwing up the financial decision-making. The so-called “B-movie superheroes”, it seems both fitting and tragic at the same time, that Golan and Globus would be undone by the superhero film. Cannon was no stranger to the superhero film. Masters of the Universe, though not a comic property, was almost akin to it in nature, plus, they had released a terrible production of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987.

Above: Mariel Hemingway as Lacy Warfield and Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent / Superman, in the film disaster known as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).
Just look at that picture. Does that look like it would be any good?

In fact, the failure of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (initial budget of $36 million was reduced to $17 million and it still failed) was so staggering that they had to ask Warner Bros. to handle some of its assets. Nobody thought anybody could do worse than Superman III, but I guess if anyone could prove that statement wrong, it was Cannon. Facing bankruptcy and the beginnings of an investigation by the SEC (who suspected that Cannon had misstated its financial reports), Cannon was taken over by Pathé Communications, a holding company controlled by Giancarlo Parretti (himself, a pretty crooked financier) and backed by French bank Credit Lyonnais.

In 1989, Golan, who was citing differences with both his longtime producing partner and cousin Globus, and Parretti, left Cannon, thus severing one half of the creative team. Golan would leave to head the 21st Century Film Corporation. This is what happened, as far as I can tell. 21st Century had original been bought by Cannon for $200,000 in January of 1989. Golan established a new version of it after exiting Cannon, as the company was sold to him, with promised backing of at least $159,600,000 from Cannon.

Above: Vincent Klyn as Fender Tremolo and Jean-Claude Van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker in Cyborg (1989). It would one of the last films produced by Golan-Globus.

In 1990, Pathé took control of MGM and UA. Cannon’s library then became property of MGM. Independent film producer Ovidio Assonitis would, for a time, become Chairman and CEO of the newly relaunched Cannon Pictures, from 1991 to 1994. Giancarlo Parretti would spend the rest of his time using company money for his own personal use and living like a Hollywood king, while MGM produced no movies, and then on the run from the law for various crimes like securities fraud. Meanwhile, in 1993, the last film to be released by Cannon would be Street Knight, starring Jeff Speakman.

A bunch of comic book superheroes had killed our “B-movie superheroes”.

Up to that point in time, the only really lucrative comic book film franchise was the Superman series, and Golan-Globus pretty much derailed that one. In 1989, however, a guy named Tim Burton came along and showed the world that, yes, comic books could make pretty good movies. The Caped Crusader’s return to the big screen was a phenomenal box office success. Golan-Globus and Marvel Comics immediately began looking for a quick buck.

Above: poster for the unreleased Captain America (1990).

As if the Superman IV debacle wasn’t enough, Golan and Globus, both together and separately (when Golan left for 21st Century Film), had tried unsuccessfully to bring two Marvel properties to the screen: Spider-Man and Captain America. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I know a Captain America film was made by Pyun. That doesn’t mean it was successful. For years Golan-Globus had been promising a Spider-Man film, and for years nothing came of it. There was even a damn poster for it.

Above: poster for the unrealized Spider-Man (1986) film… from 1985.

There was, indeed, a time when Marvel Comics films, well, sucked. From crappy television movies with the inimitable Reb Brown as Captain America to the ultimate awesomely-bad The Punisher, with Dolph Lundgren in 1989, to the Fantastic Four film, partly produced by Roger Corman, Marvel’s films didn’t really fare well. Come to think of it, the Corman-produced Fantastic Four did not even get a release and was intended solely so that Constantin Film could hold onto the rights. I mean, it’s not like DC was phenomenally more successful, but at least they had successes. Marvel has tried to erase the past, but those films will always be here, mocking them.

Above: the cast of the original unreleased The Fantastic Four movie.
This film was a Roger Corman-produced wonder, and I really mean that… With rights to the property running out for Constantin Film, Bernd Eichinger got Corman to rush this through production, filming it in less than a month. While everyone else was thinking it would be released into theaters, Corman’s production was done only so Constanin Film could keep the rights.
They’d make another one over a decade later. Jury’s still out as to which is worse.

Now, you might be wondering just what the hell a Spider-Man film poster from 1985 for a Spider-Man film for 1986 that apparently never even got released, is doing here. Folks, see that Cannon logo on the bottom? Of course you did. It just doesn’t seem fair that The Punisher, starring former Cannon He-Man Dolph Lundgren, was made and released by New World Pictures (sans Corman) in 1989 and that Roger Corman got to produce an unreleased Fantastic Four film, does it? So Golan-Globus had the rights to two of Marvel Comics’ most famous properties: the webslinger and the patriotic supersoldier. Yeah, that’s right, that Spider-Man film series that just got rebooted after a decade was once considered a film prospect by GOLAN-GLOBUS. Can you imagine a Spider-Man film by Cannon Group? Or, more likely, can you not?

Above: Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle aka The Punisher (1989).
Another late-‘80s Marvel film that was apparently terrible, The Punisher was actually insanely awesome, second only to War Zone. Who’s going to argue with the unabashed violence, a naked meditating Dolph or one-liners about how killing 125 people is a “work in progress”?

Remember how earlier I said that Cannon had set trends in the ninja film genre and the superhero movie? I didn’t mean it in a good way. In 1985, Marvel, then-bankrupt, had first put a bid up for the rights to produce a Spider-Man movie. Nobody was interested… Except one Menahem Golan. He bought the rights for $225,000 (plus a small cut of the film’s revenues, if made), to make the film by 1990, or have the rights revert back to Marvel. This wasn’t surprising, given Golan’s overzealousness and risk-taking behavior. This was also before the Superman IVdisaster and before years of financial negligence would catch up with the producing cousins. Along with the rights, Golan-Globus spent $2 million on ten scripts in four years. None of them satisfied Golan. Golan also wanted a big-name director and a budget of $15 million. As for Cap, they’d gotten those rights sometime in the late-1980s. Correction: there’s evidence that suggests that Cannon obviously had the rights before then. But beyond that I have been unable to find anything substantial about the history of the production of Captain America under Golan-Globus.

Above: apparently this is a Captain America poster from – if Google hasn’t failed me because I know dick about Roman numerals – 1984, of an unrealized Cannon production.
If you notice, they also make the mistake of crediting the character to Stan Lee.
A little research before you publish things, guys, know what I mean?
Evidently, there was also another one in Variety magazine from 1985, to be directed by Michael Winner.

Cannon, however, went belly-up in 1989. After a string of unsuccessful box office ventures, debts arising from acquisitions such as the Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, and general Golan-style hubris, Cannon was finally acquired by Pathé. You’re all familiar with the story. At least, you should be if you’ve been reading. What I didn’t tell you yet was that when Golan left for 21st Century Film, he was able to take the rights to both Spider-Man and Captain America. With Captain America, he was finally able to produce a film, directed by Albert Pyun, and starring Matt Salinger as Cap and Scott Paulin as the Red Skull. It was not released in the States in 1990 and was finally released in 1992 on VHS.

Above: Scott Paulin as the Red Skull in Captain America (1990).
This film was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

Very long and complicated story short: the Spider-Man film, however, came to fruition after seventeen years, and without the input of Menahem Golan, or Globus or Cannon. While fears of rights reverting back to Marvel for Captain America caused that film to be rushed through, a new deal allowed Golan to get an extension on the rights to the Spider-Man film. This time they had to get it out by January 1992. Golan sold the theatrical rights to another independent, Carolco, and the budget ballooned to $50,000,000. Wouldn’t you know it? Carolco collapsed too. In 1993, after the beginnings of a legal battle, Golan was officially knocked out when it was judged that his rights had long expired. The rest of the legal battle and hellish production engulfed the rest of the 1990s, involving everyone including Golan, MGM, Marvel Comics, Twentieth Century Fox, Carolco, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. Sam Raimi’s rendition was finally released in 2002.

Above: Menahem Golan.

In hindsight, it seems like the last year or two of Cannon’s storied life was an illustration of everything it was doing wrong. The cousins had a sort of notoriety around Hollywood. Their yearly appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, for instance, was, according to Patrick Runkle, a thing of legend, especially in the late 1980s. They took out every newspaper ad, had posters done, threw parties for stars, and spent millions to promote their upcoming films. This is likely where the idea for the 1985 Spider-Man poster originated. This sort of hubris, behavior and wasteful spending was an indication of Cannon’s troubles.

Above: Yoram Globus (middle) and Christopher Pearce (right). Pearce was another Cannon executive, who had briefly taken over the company after Assonitis stepped down.

Cannon’s non-screen exploits (which included their yearly trips to the Cannes Film Festival) were almost legendary, and perhaps what made them more famous in Hollywood than their actual big screen work. For instance, during their 1986 visit to Cannes, Golan signed a contract with Jean-Luc Godard (yes, the Godard) to direct King Lear. The contract was on a napkin. Golan, ever the showman, proudly displayed said napkin during a press conference for the film (and later in 1997 claimed that a New York museum had offered $10,000 for it). This sort of outgoing behavior continued even after Golan left Globus for 21st Century Film Corporation. Globus, still with Cannon, and Golan, at 21st, made competing films cashing in on the lambada craze of the time. So unrestrained and boisterous were the two that they even set the same release date. It was this sort of unsound financial decision-making, due in part to the cousins’ unabashed, and almost charming, arrogance that had initially led to Cannon’s downfall. In fact, and this is just a short side note, a lot of Golan and Globus’ charming, goofy and arrogant naivety can be seen in a lot of the films they produced together over the years.

Above: Melora Hardin and J. Eddie Peck in Cannon’s Lambada (1990). Below: 21st Century Film Corporation’s The Forbidden Dance, starring Laura Harring (1990). I don’t think it really matters who came out the winner in this case.

Above: Melora Hardin and J. Eddie Peck in Cannon’s Lambada (1990).


Above: 21st Century Film Corporation’s The Forbidden Dance, starring Laura Harring (1990).
I don’t think it really matters who came out the winner in this case.

In a way, Golan-Globus epitomized the 1980s, the decade of greed, overconsumption, bad hair and Reaganism, and their downfall was partly due to the whole 1980s attitude of being big and bad and beautiful. Their love of film was perhaps too grand, with their ambitions far larger in scope than anything they could hope to accomplish. While their hardline pro-Israeli and pro-American stance won audiences over during the Reagan era, as the 1980s came to a close, so did their style and panache. By then, their primary mode of output, the genre film, which seemed to epitomize the decade, seemed outdated and hokey. Audiences preferred more sleekness and polish in their action movie, along with young stars they could root for; think Point Break (1991).

Above: one of Cannon’s final films, American Samurai (1992). Pictured is Mark Dacascos.

The 1980s were great for Cannon and, as a result, it was great for filmgoers. A period of time marked by intense cinematic competition, of which Cannon took so many chances. It’s a tale almost bittersweet. They made a lot of great films, but their ultimate love for film and their risk-taking made the story all the more tragic, when that’s what really destroyed them in the end. It’s almost Shakespearean. I don’t usually like to quote so-called authority figures, but I thought this was nice: Roger Ebert said in 1987 that, “No other production organization in the world today has taken more chances with serious, marginal films than Cannon.” Of course, he also thought they would be overshadowed by their exploitation films and their failures, but that’s high praise, nevertheless.

A more interesting question is what the appeal of the Cannon Group is now.

That might have something to do with it.
Actually, not really. Alien from L.A. (1988) with Kathy Ireland (pictured above) was pretty heinous.

Twenty and thirty years on and the films are still popular, despite being thought of as garbage genre movies. They still continue to be discovered by new fans everyday. There are people who quote Bloodsport like it was their Bible. Or people who swear that Death Wish 3 trumps Commando in every way. There’s just something so endearing about the Cannon Films. Maybe it’s the brazen stereotypes, the hamfisted approach, the simplicity, the charm, the goofiness, the often over-the-top insane way the films go about their business.

Above: depiction of the over-the-top insane way Cannon goes about its business.
This is Golan or Globus using threat of violence to try to secure funding for his next film.
Above (for real): New Year’s Evil (1980), Cannon’s attempt to cash in on the slasher genre.

How anyone can hate Bloodsport is totally beyond my understanding. I can understand why the critics bash it. It is a pretty hammy film. But I think they all secretly like it. They must. I’m not old enough to remember Cannon in its heyday (giving away my age a little here). The first Cannon Film I ever saw was Bloodsport, and then Cyborg, and then Kickboxer and I began to realize that every single film had a similar style and approach to it. I realized I had stumbled onto something. Something big. It started off small, but all of a sudden I had everything from 10 to Midnight to Cobra to Runaway Train to the Real First Avenger, Captain America, as directed by Pyun and brought to you by Golan. I loved the stereotypes, the bad acting, the personification of the 1980s, its unabashed goofiness and the almost proud way it stamped its Cannon logo on everything.

Above: Jeff Speakman, as Jake Barrett, having the honor of appearing in the final Cannon Film ever released, Street Knight, in 1993.

Whether your films have the crappiest ninjas, or are an hour and twenty minutes of dancing, or are unabashed 1980s action flicks… Whether it’s Chuck Norris duking it out with Sonny Landham, or Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling his way to victory and his son’s heart… Whether it’s an aged Charles Bronson blowing away street trash, or Van Damme proudly doing the splits… Whether it’s for your greatest or for your nonexistent films, for what you did and didn’t… Whether it’s the failures or the successes, or the arrogance and the hubris… From your underrated gems to unabashed trash, I love all of it. Except those unwatchably terrible and ungodly boring films (though I don’t think there’ve been too many of those) because those are the ones I just love to hate. Golan-Globus, your love of cinema is one of the reasons I love cinema. This tragic love of film and risk-taking was part of your downfall, but how anyone can hold that against you is beyond me.

Above: Sonny Landham doing his best impression of a constipated pirate in Firewalker (1986).

Golan. Globus. Dewey. Friedland. Sylvester Stallone, Tobe Hooper, Dan O’Bannon, Mathilda May, Sam Firstenberg, Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Sho Kosugi, Brian Thompson, Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers, Franco Nero, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Bolo Yeung, Michel Qissi, Vincent Klyn, Albert Pyun, Jeff Speakman, Joseph Zito, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Lynch, anyone I’ve forgotten, and anyone who’s ever worked a Cannon Film, I know that you – dead or alive – will probably never read this, but I’d like to thank you all from the bottom of my nonexistent heart, for all of the countless of hours of joy your films have given me. There will never be another one like you, but may your films live forever in infamy.

Even this chick with the hairy armpits from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984) is celebrating wildly…
Maybe a little too wildly…
Seriously, what the hell? You know what’s really funny? Nobody – not director Sam Firstenberg, Golan, Globus or anybody – thought at any point during the production process to cut her out. They fully just stay on her for like two seconds. Plus, look at the expression of the little boy on the left. Abject horror creeping slowly onto his face, and looking into the camera as if to say: “Really?!” Priceless.
I love you Cannon Films.

I hope they get the ball rolling on Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Hopefully this will be a nice precursor to that action movie-politics paper I will write, if ever.

And not wanting to be a lazy ass this time, some links to the people that write it better than I do, plus references:

By the way, if you are looking for a 1990s film studio for B-action movies, try PM Entertainment.

It’s sure as hell no Cannon, but it’s gotta be something, right? Anything?

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