Short Circuit 2

February 9, 2012

The producers of the Short Circuit movies are in a secure position with their star property. Unlike other Hollywood heavyweights, the collection of hardware known as No. Five will never require a percentage of the gross, never demand a bigger Winnebago, never need to take a month off to detox at the Betty Ford Center.

He probably shouldn’t be left out in the rain, but other than that, No. Five is pretty reliable. So, for that matter, is Short Circuit 2, which uses the same brand of funny-robot humor as the original film.

Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy, the other stars of the first Short Circuit, have gone on to other projects. This may be part of the reason Short Circuit 2 is a better movie than the first film. In the new installment, the first film’s scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India occupies center stage. He’s the one who’s given to tortuous, subcontinental-inflected malapropisms. If you think ethnic dialect humor is funny (and I plead nolo contendre to this guilty pleasure), his performance contains a few laughs.

The Indian scientist and No. Five, now known as Johnny Five, are in a large metropolis (filmed in Toronto) trying to assemble small robots for the toy market. Somehow, they’ve gotten hooked up with a street hawker (Michael McKean) who eyeballs Johnny Five’s $11 million price tag and figures he can make a real killing.

But this isn’t the only plot a-hatching. There’s also a bank robbery being planned, and the robot-assembly warehouse stands in the way.

This last bit overextends the movie and even takes it in the direction of pathos. See, when the bad guys get hold of Johnny Five, they gum up his wires and disconnect his whangdoodle. The robot is in danger of dying, or as much as an input-satiated machine can be in danger of “dying,” anyway.

The robot is the same perky compendium of modern culture; he spits out rock ‘n’ roll and biblical references with equal facility, and even alludes to such up-to-date cultural icons as Chuch Lady from “Saturday Night Live” and the ubiquitous California Raisins. (The robot’s voice is dubbed by Tim Blaney.)

I couldn’t stand the original movie. That robot was just too cutesy-poo. The sequel still has a lot of cutesy and quite a bit of poo, but I have to admit that Short Circuit 2 is shrewdly assembled. The original writing team, S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, repeat their roles here, and director Kenneth Johnson, a TV veteran, keeps things running.

There’s even one scene that finds real charm. The shy scientist has a crush on a toy executive (Cynthia Gibb) and invites her out, but he needs the words of Johnny Five when it comes to wooing her. So, Cyrano-like, the robot’s proddings are transmitted to a large readerboard that the scientist can easily scan—a procedure that works fine until technical difficulties interrupt the broadcast. Just for a moment, though, that robot does seem almost human.

First published in the Herald, July 7, 1988

The law of low expectations wins out here; this movie had to look okay, compared to the first one. I understand a reboot is afoot. With luck, I’ll be out of the business by then. And I still like dialect humor, sadly.

Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.