Rule of Three: Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

With our other two films this year, the YouTube personalities behind them had clear areas of expertise. For James Rolfe, it was video games. For Red Letter Media, it was films. In each case (in different ways), the films they made used that expertise as their creative focus.

That made sense, however successful or not the end results might have been. Now we have Ashens, and…what is Ashens?

I suppose I could also ask “Who is Ashens?” There’s an easy answer to that, though: Ashens is Stuart Ashen, a Norwich-based…humorist? Technology buff? Author?

Okay, I take it back; that answer is not much easier.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In my review of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, I laid out a hypothetical pitch for a television version of the YouTube show Technology Connections. It was, of course, hilarious. My point was that it would have been impossible to get a show with such a loose format made.

Ashens is even looser.

The most universal description of Ashens videos I can provide is this: They take place in front of his brown sofa. There are exceptions to this rule, and plenty of them, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

What Ashens does in front of his brown sofa will vary. He could talk about films. He could show off old action figures. He could eat expired food that people sent him in the mail. He could discuss old electronics, new electronics, rare electronics, or famous electronics.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

It’s a weird channel, in a sense, as the only constant is Stuart Ashen himself. (“ashens” was a handle born from his surname and his first initial, and it’s since become recognizable as his brand. From here on, I’ll use Ashens to refer to his character in the film and Ashen to refer to…Ashen.)

And so we have a British man whose hands we see more often than his face, talking briefly or at great length about things he already loves or has never seen before. Some episodes are informative. Some are nostalgic. Some are little more than improvised comedy routines. You never know.

People might watch James Rolfe because they like video games. People might watch Red Letter Media because they like film. People only watch Ashens because they like Ashen.

Like many YouTube personalities, Ashen grew an audience that simply wanted more of him. Unlike most YouTube personalities who fall into this category, though, he never seems particularly interested about being in front of the camera. His videos are live narrations, basically, as his hands show off whatever item is being discussed and attempt to get his camera’s auto-focus to cooperate. Ashen is in every video, and yet is mostly physically absent from them.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Again, it’s a weird channel.

Over the years, Ashen has improved his video and audio quality, but never became less content to film nearly every video in front of an increasingly battered brown sofa. What is the appeal?

The appeal is Ashen himself. More specifically, it’s the fact that he is one of the most effortlessly funny human beings alive.

This is another useful point of comparison. James Rolfe is funny, but has the benefit of working from a script; he can write and rewrite every last one of his jokes until he’s satisfied. The Red Letter Media team is funny, but it’s a team; it’s a bunch of guys, often drunk, who sit around and have a conversation, then edit out the dead air and boil each video down to the most entertaining bits.

Ashen is different.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

He may — and I assume he does — come up with a few jokes or observations ahead of time, but he is clearly riffing so frequently that I am astounded at how funny he can be on the spot. It’s difficult to explain, but there are often things he could not have known in advance, and his ability to turn whatever he’s seeing into a quip that nearly always lands is uncanny.

Many people can be funny, in other words; Ashen is funny.

The man himself could read this and know that I’m talking out of my ass. (I make no claim otherwise.) But, as a viewer, that is how it appears; Ashen opens his mouth, and comedy comes out. Perhaps in reality he spends hours rehearsing and endlessly reshoots his videos to get just the right set of reactions from himself. I wouldn’t know. All I know is that it looks like he sits down, switches his camera on, and brilliance ensues.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s a very specific talent, and the fact that his videos are consistently good and there’s never any indication that he’s struggling to keep the jokes coming elevates him above…well, pretty much anyone else who’s ever tried to improvise.

All of which is wonderful, yes, but it leaves precious little room for a movie. Right? If video games and films were the obvious targets for our previous two entries, is Ashen associated closely enough with anything (other than himself) that could serve as the basis for a film?

Actually, yes: Tat.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

While he covers plenty of deserving topics on his channel — things that are either close to his heart or close to the hearts of those in his audience — he tends to gravitate toward tat.

Trash. Pop-culture garbage. Things that don’t matter, never mattered, and can never matter. Commercial detritus. That is his area of expertise.

Several of his series and many one-off videos involve Ashen grabbing a load of junk from Wish, AliExpress, or Poundland (the equivalent of Dollar Tree here in the States) and showcasing it.

Why? Well, why not? Nobody in their right mind would care about any of these cheaply made, poorly thought-out bits of shelf (or cart) filler. They just enjoy hearing Ashen talk, and the universal pointlessness of tat makes his fixation on it all the more amusing.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In reality, Ashen finds tat easily, either by purchasing it himself or because fans have sent it to him. This film, however, is about his mission (his character asks us not to call it a quest) to find one specific piece of tat that has eluded him since its release in 1991: The Game Child.

The Game Child is (or, I suppose, was) an actual product. It was released with the clear hope of confusing people who wanted to buy a Game Boy. Its branding was similar and it was built to resemble the Game Boy as closely as possible, right down to including a fake game in a fake slot and a “battery compartment” that was actually just empty space.

It had one game loaded into it, and that was it. If you wanted a different game, you’d have to buy a different Game Child, though there were only three games available. These were basic — and terrible — LCD games that made Tiger handhelds look like Symphony of the Night.

Nobody cared, because nobody wanted one. It existed only to trick people into paying for it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Which is precisely why Ashens wants it.

“I’m a collector,” he explains early in the film. “I collect very rare but absolutely worthless collectibles.”

I have no idea how much of that applies to the real Stuart Ashen and how much of that is only the persona he uses for his videos and this film, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it feels genuine.

Ashen is an enthusiast. You’d have to be one to spend years of your life talking to yourself and uploading the resulting monologues to the internet. The difference between enthusiasts is what triggers that enthusiasm.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Is it tat, in reality? I have no idea. Ashen has a love for the early days of computer games, for classic television shows, for films old and new. Is his enthusiasm for those things more genuine than his enthusiasm for the things so profoundly without value that shops struggle to sell them? Again, no idea.

But tat is believable enough as a source of his enthusiasm. We all have our hobbies and niches. Ashens’ niche just tends to be nicher than most, which makes it at least a little more interesting by default. Whether he occupies it with sincerity or with the sole aim of entertaining others, it doesn’t matter. It is our window into Ashens.

I said when I started this year’s Rule of Three that I was interested in watching the films but hadn’t seen any of them before.

I lied to you, a bit.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen uploaded this entire movie to YouTube for free at one point and encouraged folks to watch it. I think his rationale was that he’d more or less sold as many copies as he would sell, and allowing the rest of his fans to watch for free would still bring him ad revenue. It was a win-win.

I sat down to watch it, excited to see what one of the internet’s funniest people had put together for the world to enjoy.

I made it a few minutes into the film. I enjoyed none of it. I stopped watching with the best of intentions to pick it up again at a later point to see if it got better.

But I never went back. Not until this series. I couldn’t work up enough of my own enthusiasm to even click “play” again.

That was okay, certainly. Not every film has to appeal to me, and Ashen kept uploading regularly enough that I was sure that I still enjoyed his work. Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild would just be one thing that one human being created that didn’t appeal to me.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Now that I’ve watched it in its entirety, though, I think it’s just that the movie gets off to a shakier start than it should. The opening scene isn’t representative of the quality of the film to follow. The movie leads, in other words, with what is almost exclusively its weakest material.

We open with Ashens and a man named Richard showing up at a corner store. They have a lead on a qMutt-17, a bootleg version of what Ashens calls a “dancing digi-dog.” (Probably for rights reasons; it seems to be the iDog.)

About to make the purchase, Ashens notices that it’s not the qMutt-17 at all; it’s the genuine, better-made, and superior in every way iDog. (“Rather than dancing,” Ashens says of the qMutt-17, “it simply emitted a series of loud beeps and then fell over.”)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s funny. In concept, it’s a perfect opening for the film. It both establishes what interests Ashens as a character and serves as a good joke: He gets angry that someone is not selling him inferior merchandise.
It fails in a few places, though, some of which will run through the entire film.

Firstly, Richard. I have nothing against the actor — Richard Sandling, who seems to have done pretty well for himself — but I have no idea what the purpose of his character is.

He’s…here, certainly. Then he does nothing of value, in terms of helping Ashens. His uselessness does tie into Ashens proclaiming that he prefers working alone, but since the next time we see him “working” at all he’s taken on a new sidekick, this can’t be the reason Richard exists.

As the film unfolds, there’s a running joke / subplot about Richard in Ashens’ kitchen, where he hosts a party, I guess? Then at the end he shows up glowing like a Star Wars force ghost. Ashens assumes he’s dead but instead he just has radiation poisoning. That…actually does make more sense than it probably seems here, but the point I’m making is that, narratively, he serves no purpose, and yet keeps showing up.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

I suspect there might be a kind of in-joke at work here that I’m not privy to. A number of Ashens’ real-world associates show up here (and in the excellent sequel, Ashens and the Polybius Heist); my assumption is that the two men overlap in some real-life orbit and this is a reference to that. The weird thing is that this doesn’t happen anywhere else; every other character serves enough of an in-film purpose that we don’t need to worry that we’re lacking information from outside the film.

Secondly, while Ashens conducts his business in a seedy back room, Richard hangs out in the shop area. This happens a few times throughout the film; Ashens keeps the plot moving in one sequence, and we keep cutting back to one of his hangers-on doing…something in a concurrent sequence. They never really overlap in any kind of thematic way or inform each other; we simply keep cutting from the main action of the film over to whatever a less-important character is getting up to. It’s never anywhere near as funny, interesting, or important as whatever Ashens is doing himself, so it’s a puzzling pattern.

Beyond that, there’s an issue that is (thankfully) exclusive to this scene. Mawaan Rizwan plays both the man Ashens in here to see and that man’s mother. No intended disrespect to Rizwan, but it’s a little uncomfortable to see him in drag with an exaggerated East Indian accent when his other role is…just sort of normally, inoffensively funny.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

I think there’s an element of intended humor behind the mother being an obvious man in woman’s clothing, with the comedy accent meant to heighten our response, but really it feels like a poorly considered scene from a 1970s sketch show that didn’t know any better.

And, okay, fine, as long as I’m complaining at length about a few minutes’ worth of material, Rizwan wears what is obviously a fake mustache in his scene with Ashens, and that’s okay. But later in the film another character wears an obviously fake mustache, and the fact that it’s obviously fake is acknowledged as a joke. So why isn’t it acknowledged here? Am I meant to believe that this obviously fake mustache is real within the world of the film but a different, equally obviously fake mustache later in the same film is not real? IT IS MADNESS

All of this and a few flat jokes put me off watching the rest of Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild for a long time. Imagine my surprise when I finally did see the rest of the film and realized how much of an outlier this opening sequence is.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Last week we covered Space Cop, a film I am told was in various levels of production between 2008 and 2015. If I were so inclined, I could probably watch that movie again, keeping that fact at the front of my mind, and look for all of the little indications of a movie that was assembled over such a long period of time. I could watch for hair length, tweaks to the costumes, facial hair…all stuff that doesn’t matter, but which will be preserved to some degree simply because time passes and things change.

I have no way of knowing if Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild were also filmed over a long period of time, or if perhaps the script were written over the course of years, or anything else, but it certainly does seem like the opening scene came from a different era of intention than the rest of the movie. It looks the part, but it feels and plays like a deleted scene that for some reason we’re being shown before the film starts.

The movie proper kicks off when Ashens reconnects with an old acquaintance at around the same time he mysteriously receives a copy of Obsolete Technology Monthly in the mail, with a sticky note flagging a feature about the Game Child.

It turns out that the Game Child is Ashens’ white whale. He has a place of honor for it in his tat dungeon, but has never been able to get his hands on one, due to the fact that the system’s distributor — The Terrifically Good Company, within the reality of this film — bought the disappointing handheld back for more money than customers paid for it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

We also learn that upon its release in 1991, Young Ashens attempted to buy the lone unit shipped to Norwich, only to have been beaten out by his nemesis, Nemesis.

It’s a funny setup, and indeed the entire film builds to an absolutely perfect punchline…but we’ll get to that.

For now, this early in the film, it’s mainly amusing to me that Young Ashens already loves tat. It’s one thing to be a grown man reading a copy of Obsolete Technology Monthly and wondering if he could get his hands on some historical consumer oddity, but it’s another that Young Ashens was already anticipating the release of a disappointing knockoff and intended to visit the shop that very morning to buy it. That’s cute.

At the behest of his newest enthusiastic sidekick, Ashens sets out to find and obtain what is likely the last remaining Game Child under public ownership.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

That’s the plot of the film, and it’s basically what I thought Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie would have been: a picaresque. I know I should probably say “road movie” instead, but Ashens never seems to get far beyond Norwich. In terms of scope, then, it has more precedent in literary than cinematic tradition. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses more than it’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

As with Ulysses, Ashens explores a world that is small and already familiar to him, interacting in large part with people he already knows. The adventure unfolds over a narrow and familiar landscape. Not dear, dirty Dublin, but perhaps near, nerdy Norwich.

Each of the films we covered this year have some degree of on-screen celebrity talent. Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild almost certainly handles it best, but I honestly feel that all three movies at least handled it well.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie had a great, unhinged Eddie Pepitone, as well as a fun appearance from Lloyd Kaufman. If you’d like to count it, Howard Scott Warshaw — the real-life programmer behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — also popped up as himself. He didn’t do or say anything noteworthy, but at least the film’s “look who we found!” moment was brief.

Space Cop had Patton Oswalt as its big get. We discussed last week the issues with that, but its other two winking cameos were far better. Comic artist Freddie Williams appears in the bar scenes, but isn’t treated as a celebrity; he just gets to be understandably baffled by Space Cop, who is exactly as baffled by the concept of solitaire. Then there was B-movie auteur Len Kabasinski, who served as a humorously obvious stunt double for Space Cop. If you recognize him, you get a nice little chuckle of familiarity. If you don’t, the completely different build and dangling ponytail sell the joke perfectly well on their own.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild has two major celebrity cameos, and they both work perfectly because they don’t feel any different from the rest of the actors. You’re likely to recognize them, but they don’t distract. They fit.

First, there’s Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewellyn, playing Ashens’ old professor. Before Llewellyn will share any knowledge of the Game Child’s whereabouts, he requires Ashens to defeat him at “the most intensive game of skill and wits ever devised by the human mind.”

It is, of course, the head-to-head children’s game Space Attack!

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Llewellyn is predictably great, but it never feels as though the movie is reveling in his casting. It’s a role a number of actors could have played brilliantly, and one of those actors is Robert Llewellyn who, fortunately, happens to have gotten the part. It even ends with Ashens giving him a noogie, perhaps the polar opposite of Red Letter Media being unable to bring themselves to interrupt Patton Oswalt’s overlong spotlight.

The bigger celebrity in this film is Warwick Davis, who plays himself. Granted, most people watching the film will already know Davis, but even if they don’t, his scene here is funny enough on its own.

Davis is revealed to be the actor behind the mask of another character, which confuses Ashens, as that other character is much taller.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

“I’m an actor,” Davis tells him flatly. “It’s called acting.”

The scene contains some excellent back and forth between the two, as Ashens fishes for some logical explanation without accidentally coming across as bigoted, and the perfect editing of the scene allows a small man to become a much larger one in the space between a change of camera angles.

It’s a fantastic sight gag paired with Monty Python-worthy dialogue between two people on opposite ends of an unbridgeable absurdity. Davis is perfect here, but I don’t know if the scene is any funnier because we recognize him. The film doesn’t lean on him to make the scene work; the scene works and we get to spend some time with Warwick Davis. (Never a bad thing.)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Llewellyn and Davis are two of the many characters with whom Ashens crosses paths on his way to find the Game Child. Each new character requires Ashen to come up with a completely new idea and dynamic that will keep the film moving and also be funny. That’s something even accomplished filmmakers could struggle with. Ashen doesn’t; the film stays consistently amusing in a way that feels — like Ashen’s comedy in general — effortless.

It’s worth noting here that Ashen, of the stars of this year’s films, seems to be the most comfortable in front of the camera. That…might be difficult to articulate, as neither Rolfe nor the Red Letter Media crew seem uncomfortable; it’s more that Ashen comes off as much like himself here as he does in his videos.

As odd as it may sound, Ashen feels so at home within the insanity of this film’s world that it’s easy believe that this is his world. That when he finishes reviewing some piece of garbage action figure, he turns off his camera, opens his front door, and finds himself in this precise version of Norwich that registers to us as insane but — necessarily — feels to him like home.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

There’s a kind of innate affability to Ashen, which allows his dry sarcasm to carry him further into our good graces than it would otherwise. Admittedly, Ashen has English blood coursing through his veins, giving him a preternatural fluency in dry sarcasm, but it’s a skill the man has clearly honed over the course of a lifetime.

There’s a reason he keeps getting compared to Simon Pegg — a real-life running joke that, almost inevitably, finds itself a home within the film — and it goes beyond whatever degree of physical similarity the two men have. It’s because Ashen is a gifted comic, whether or not he’d even refer to himself that way. (I’m not playing coy, here; I genuinely have no idea how Ashen would refer to himself.)

The fact that he plays himself — “himself” — in this film also complicates things just a hair when compared to the previous two movies we covered. The AVGN can ogle a woman’s tits in a bar and that doesn’t mean that James Rolfe himself does that. Space Cop was a man who looked like Chris Farley but saw Jean-Claude Van Damme whenever he looked in the mirror, but that doesn’t mean Rich Evans is anywhere near that delusional.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen, though, blurs the line. When his character does something intelligent, doesn’t that mean we’re supposed to see Ashen himself as intelligent? When his character is a dick, aren’t we supposed to see Ashen as a dick?

I’m not totally sure. At the very least, Ashen paints (and plays) his character here as both realistically clever and realistically flawed. He neither comes across as a celebration of himself nor as some exaggerated condemnation of his own (or his character’s) flaws.

He’s smart enough to track down the Game Child, but not smart enough to realize he’s been betrayed, which in itself was a result of his dismissiveness toward the sidekick who looked up to him. Then there’s…

Well, there’s women.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

The film introduces two major female characters in Ashens’ life. One is Ashley, an old flame who had an affair with Llewellyn. Ashens was understandably hurt by this, but never to the point that it becomes a “poor me” situation. He doesn’t revel in his sadness; it’s just, realistically, something that hurt him a long time ago.

It would still be easy to hear about this and feel bad for the character — backstory like this could easily be used to define how the audience should respond to him — but it’s balanced out by Marian.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Marian, a librarian, is another of Ashens’ exes, who quite clearly still carries a torch for him. In their relationship, she is the one who got hurt. What’s more, we know for certain that her grievances are well-founded; Ashens indeed uses her and manipulates her emotions so that he can chase down leads on whatever tat he’s trying to find now. He does it during this film to find the Game Child, lying that she can join them on their mission. The moment her back is turned, he flees without her.

It’s interesting. Ashen could paint himself as some kind of womanizing rogue — humorously or seriously — but he comes across instead as an identifiably damaged person. He’s been hurt emotionally, and while it’s fair to say that he’s gotten over it, he hurts others emotionally along the way to what he wants.

Is that a result of the pain of his previous relationship? Is it coincidental? What matters, I think, is the fact that Ashens doesn’t seem to realize he’s doing it. Ashen the writer and actor surely does, but Ashens the character never seems to have a full understanding of the way in which he treats others, or how he makes them feel.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

He’s not a jerk, or a bully, or a hero, or a saint. He’s just a person. He’s realistically flawed and the movie doesn’t ask you to pity those flaws. In a movie that’s technically a vanity film, that’s an achievement in itself.

Vanity films, by their nature, are meant to showcase their stars. Let’s not pick on anybody, but if you’re even passively interested in film, you’ll be able to name movies that exist only to show off the talents — often theoretical — of the filmmaker. They cast themselves as the handsomest or most beautiful characters in the film. The smartest. The wittiest. The strongest. Other characters speak some variation on “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” only without the intent of sending shivers down the audience’s spines, as in The Manchurian Candidate. We’re meant to actually believe it.

And so when Ashens wins a fistfight against Nemesis, it’s neither because Ashen plays the character as being all that strong or all that clever; he just refuses to approach the man who has taken a crane stance.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Ashen is showing off, sure, but he’s showing off in the way I wish all vanity filmmakers would show off: He’s showing off his writing talents. His talent as a humorist. His understanding of pacing and editing and structure. At 90-ish minutes, it’s the shortest of the three films we’ve covered this month, and it’s also the one that feels the least bloated, not coincidentally.

Without question, Ashen had more material than he could fit into 90 minutes. Unlike the other two films, however, this one is edited down to its strongest stuff rather than swollen into weakness. It’s the earliest of the three films, and yet it feels like it could have been made in direct response to them. “Here,” it seems to say. “Let me show you how to take what you did, and turn it into a movie.”

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild also looks and sounds the most like an actual film. Damning with faint praise, I know, but let me say that I’m more than willing to give James Rolfe and Mike Stoklasa and any other amateur filmmaker as much leeway as necessary when it comes to production.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

If I can see what’s happening and hear what characters are saying, I’m on your side. I know you don’t have a Hollywood budget or pricey equipment. I know you’re relying on favors from friends, doing this in whatever free time you can scrape together, using whatever props you have laying around. I know you are doing your best with what you have. I know that and I sincerely admire you for that.

And yet this movie looks great. I don’t know what demon Ashen traded his soul to, but it may have been worth it. It’s the slickest and most professional of the three productions by far, to the point that I don’t even feel the need to make allowances for it being independently produced. I’m sure Ashen himself deserves plenty of the praise for this achievement but, good lord, let me extend that praise to anyone else involved with this film. Its presentation is beyond what any of us should expect from a little YouTube movie like this.

Right, okay, the plot. Forgot about that.

Ashens’ quest — sorry, mission; I keep doing that — leads him from misadventure to misadventure, my favorite of which featured Norwich-based amateur superheroes Knighthood and Decoy.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

If these two are a reference to something (beyond real-world costumed vigilantes in general), I’m not aware of it. And yet it’s one of the funniest sequences in any of these movies.

The two pull up beside Ashens on the street and stuff him into the car on the grounds that it’s a dangerous area. (The fact that they drive a two-door sedan and one of them needs to get out in order to let Ashens in is hilarious, though probably just a result of having to use whatever vehicles they could get when shooting the film.)

“A lot of weirdos around here, my friend,” Decoy cautions/lectures Ashens. Then, “We’ve been beaten up in that alleyway just there.”

“Five times,” Knighthood interjects.

I could basically just transcribe the entire scene, but I’m trying to leave as many good jokes unspoiled as possible. (That applies to all three of these films, by the way; if you think one of them sounds interesting, don’t assume that I’ve spoiled any of their best material.)

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

It stands in strong contrast with Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. There, Rolfe had some jokes he wanted to make about kaiju films, and twisted his project around until he could (barely) get them to fit. Here, Ashen had some jokes he wanted to make about superheroes, but he rooted them in the reality of his film.

Knighthood and Decoy don’t fly or have laser vision, because those things don’t exist within the world of this movie. Instead they’re a pair of recognizable — if eccentric — boobs. It’s all the funnier for the fact that it has a place within identifiable reality. Stretch too far to make a joke and it’s no longer impressive that you made it; weave that joke into a narrative and you’ve got a reason to be proud.

The characters are great, as they’re clearly trying to present themselves as superheroes but, once they are in that position with someone, they have no clue what to do next. They’ve only thought this through as far as it took to envision themselves in costume. It’s marvelous.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

The movie climaxes at the headquarters of The Terrifically Good Company, where Ashens finds what may be the last Game Child remaining in circulation.

It’s here that he learns the dark secret of the knockoff Game Boy.

“When assembled together correctly, the Game Child makes a nuclear bomb,” Ashley tells him.

It was the result of a deranged factory employee, and the distributor did not notice the plutonium stashed away in every Game Child until the units were already on shelves. The company recalled them, of course, but not all of them came back. And Ashley attempts to force Ashens, at gunpoint, to figure out how to arm to device.

The Game Child, it turns out, is not an easily dismissed hunk of plastic; it actually represents a previously unknown, fascinating, potentially fatal chapter in the annals of history. Which means…well…

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

“You told me that this is special, and of immense value,” Ashen says to her. “Things of worth are worthless to me.”

And then he destroys the Game Child.

It’s the perfect punchline not only to the film, but to Ashens as a character and as a channel.

The more genuinely interesting something is, the less this man cares about it. If it isn’t junk, he’s not going to spend an hour talking about it in front of his sofa. If it has any significance to the world around him at all…well, what’s the point?

It’s brilliant and — impressively — it’s not just a big joke with which to draw the film to a conclusion; it’s the perfect joke.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

What’s more, it works as a conclusion to the character’s arc. “Things of worth are worthless to me” goes one hell of a long way toward explaining his difficulties with relationships, with friendships, with meaningful human interaction. It’s both a conclusion to the Quest for the Game Child and an understanding — and an explanation, and an admission — of why the character was on that Quest to begin with.

Letting go of the Game Child also — and brilliantly — frees up his hands to hold on to something important.

What is that? Or, rather, what will it be? It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is this moment of change, played completely within the bounds of a story about a funny man tracking down a piece of consumer electronics trash.

It’s pretty fucking excellent.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Both of the other films we covered this year have left a bit of a stain on their creators’ legacies. For Rolfe, the accusations of theft and dissatisfaction with his latter-day output have yet to leave him. Space Cop was received so poorly that Red Letter Media jokes about the film’s failures and shortcomings far — far — more often than they promote it.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild, however, didn’t seem to have a negative impact on its creator at all. I’m sure there were those who were disappointed by it — this is the internet, of course — but any disappointment here was easily enough separated from whatever the audience felt about the man behind it.

That might be an unexpected byproduct of this being the one that looks and functions the most as a film in its own right. It’s not an extension of the channel; it’s something with its own merits that can either be celebrated or derided. It’s a complete work of fiction that stands or falls on its own, and isn’t beholden to whatever affection it expects us to have for Ashen himself.

Because he made an actual movie, in other words, that movie gets to absorb the praise or the blame. Ashen himself is still Ashen, himself.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

In real life, Ashen got a hold of a Game Child (likley quite easily) and did indeed review it on his channel after the release of the film. It’s junk. It was perfectly at home in front of that brown sofa, in those hands, being spoken about by that voice.

Those who wanted to see what Ashen could do with a feature-length motion picture got to find out. And those who just wanted Ashen to talk about a forgettable shitty handheld in his standard style got that, too. Everybody won. Or, at the very least, nobody had any reason to be disappointed.

When I started this year’s Rule of Three, I expected all of the movies to be at or around the same quality of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. And I was okay with that. I liked — and like — Rolfe as a human being. I have affection for his output and I have no reason to think he’s anything other than an excellent person. His movie wasn’t great, but that was okay. My movie probably wouldn’t be great, either.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Then Space Cop and Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild both turned out to be really good. (In profoundly different ways, mind you.) They were each successful in what they set out to do, and any disappointment would have to come from the fact that they were doing things other than what an audience might have wanted.

My intention this year was to celebrate the histories of three of YouTube’s biggest success stories. I figured that the movies would simply be quirky offshoots that were worth discussing enough to justify the spotlight. That really only ended up being the case with the first film. The other two stood on their own better than I ever could have expected them to.

I’m not sure which of the three is my favorite. Gun to my head, I’d probably go with Space Cop. But Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild is the best of them, certainly. And while I’m absolutely sure it was a pain in the ass to make, it feels effortless, just like everything Ashen does.

Bringing us a 90-minute feature film feels no more difficult than recording some junk in front of an old sofa.

That’s one hell of an impressive illusion.

Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013)

Rule of Three: Space Cop (2016)

My intention with this year’s Rule of Three, as you might have guessed last week, was to spend some time up front discussing context, discussing the creators, discussing what the YouTube channel behind the film is known for. My reason for this is that the films we’re covering are labors of love first and commercial products second. (Or third. Or fourth…)

I went into this series not knowing if I’d enjoy any of the films. If I did, great. If I didn’t, however, the last thing I wanted to do was launch directly into a tirade against something that someone I respect put a lot of work into. I’d be honest, of course, but the least I could do was celebrate their achievements up front. Their appeal. Their ability to amass an audience in the first place.

But I’m not sure if I can do that with Space Cop, so allow me to put my opinion up front. Ready?

Thanks to Space Cop, I think I finally, truly understand the term “guilty pleasure.”

Space Cop (2016)

I’ve long known that term, of course. I’ve probably even used it, though until this point I never meant it.

The thing is, I like crap. I know that and I’m comfortable with that. The Room isn’t a guilty pleasure for me, because I feel no guilt about the pleasure it brings me. I love the pleasure it brings me. Ditto Miami Connection, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, and what I truly hope is the ever-growing filmography of Neil Breen.

As little genuine merit as those things contain, I feel no guilt about my love for them. I share them with friends. I excitedly seek out films with even less merit. I set time aside to watch them because I enjoy watching them.

Guilt never enters into it. It can’t. My love is genuine, even if it takes a different shape from the love I have for the truly great films that have moved me, inspired me, defined who I am.

Space Cop (2016)

Then I watched Space Cop, and I think I get it. It still might be a bit much to say that I feel guilt for loving it, but I am at least compelled to couch my love for the movie in apology. With admissions that it isn’t great. With the understanding that I am and will continue to be an outlier.

That may not be fair to Space Cop. It may also be the fairest possible way in which a human being can love Space Cop. To explain that, though, we’ll finally need to arrive where I thought this review would begin: with a discussion of Red Letter Media.

Red Letter Media as a channel is primarily focused on film criticism, with few excursions into other media. The three founders — Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans — started posting videos in 2007, which were mainly short films and low-budget experiments to keep themselves and their friends entertained. That’s okay.

Space Cop (2016)

Then, in 2008, the channel found a direction. Stoklasa — annoyed at a film that released 13 years earlier — created a longform video essay about Star Trek Generations. Rather than review it, y’know, normally, he assigned it to a character: Mr. Plinkett. Stoklasa affected a low, droning voice and didn’t appear on camera. Giving the review to a character meant that he got to write for a character, which itself led to jokes and ideas that probably wouldn’t have worked if he’d presented himself as nothing more than A Guy With An Opinion on the Internet.

From there, he — as Plinkett — covered the rest of the Star Trek: The Next Generation films. Then, in 2009, he decided to have Plinkett review Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

This is when everything changed for the channel.

With four film reviews under his belt, a better understanding of his Plinkett character, and two friends still itching to produce more short films, he turned his Phantom Menace review into an event. For around 70 minutes, Stoklasa narrated a work of criticism that doubled as a comedy film in its own right, with elements of documentary and horror parody woven throughout.

Space Cop (2016)

The fact that it’s still so difficult to explain is a testament to just how unique that review is. Like Rolfe with his Angry Video Game Nerd character, countless people have attempted to duplicate it superficially, but nobody has really come close to recreating the magic underneath.

The Phantom Menace review was intelligent and insightful enough to earn Stoklasa fans in the film industry who were equally disappointed by how the movie had turned out.

He focused on larger issues in the film’s structure, production, and writing than on the more obvious missteps, such as Jar Jar Binks being a thing that existed in a major motion picture. That alone gave his review an air of legitimacy, elevating it well above the typical level of internet discourse. Combined with genuinely funny jokes, sharp observations, and the bonkers framing device of murderous monster Plinkett ranting about a long-ago-dismissed Star Wars film, Red Letter Media found itself with a worldwide audience overnight.

Space Cop (2016)

With an audience came expectations. Stoklasa, Bauman, and Evans rose to meet them.

The channel’s legions of new subscribers weren’t tuning in to see three friends screwing around with a video camera. A unique work of film criticism drew them to Red Letter Media, and Red Letter Media in turn started providing unique works of film criticism more regularly.

They introduced a number of shows over time. Half in the Bag featured Stoklasa and Bauman as VCR repairmen (and Evans as Mr. Plinkett, their recurring customer) who discuss — usually — recent releases. Best of the Worst sees a rotating panel including those three and a few other friends who watch movies they — usually — have not seen and then discuss them. Re:View stars two people discussing a movie they either already enjoy or have enough to say about that it warrants a dedicated conversation. Plinkett reviews continued, of course, and various other projects came and went.

Space Cop (2016)

The best of these was and remains Best of the Worst, which is probably my favorite show that’s ever come out of YouTube. It captures the giddy thrill of discovering terrible films with like-minded friends, and the resulting panel discussions range from fascinating and insightful to digressive and absurd. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, probably, but if you’ve ever spent a night watching bad movies with close friends and a case of a beer, it will feel familiar.

It also, I think, shows off the best aspects of the channel; the panelists bring a wealth of film knowledge, some degree of film-making experience, and great comic interplay that makes their discussions enriching and entertaining by turns, even if you don’t care about a single thing being discussed.

All of this is to say that — by every possible metric — Space Cop had the most to prove.

Space Cop (2016)

If James Rolfe or Stuart Ashen failed to make entertaining films, those movies would register exclusively as failed experiments.

Stoklasa, Bauman, Evans, and their collaborators, though, built their brand on some degree of expertise in this arena. None of them, I’m sure, would claim to be a master of their craft, but they at least present themselves as being in a position of relative competence. They regularly and consistently dissect films that have gone wrong and propose corrections.

With Space Cop, it was their chance to put theory into practice. It was also their chance to embrace once again their love of film production, this time with years of experience of movie criticism behind them. Surely whatever they made would have to be good.


Space Cop (2016)

These film lovers, these movie buffs, these students of the medium, these preeminent voices who redefined the way amateur critics present themselves and their opinions, made a movie about an outer-space policeman who travels through time.

It feels (pardon the pun) like a cop out. There is no doubt in my mind that this particular creative team could put together a film worth taking seriously. It could still be a comedy, of course. It could be anything they wanted it to be. It could be a love letter to the great films that inspired their passion.

Instead, it’s a riff on some of the worst movies ever made. And that feels — correctly or not — like a barrier to criticism. Did you think Space Cop was bad? Well, it was supposed to be bad so, hey, big deal. If Stoklasa and co. could hide behind the pretense that they weren’t taking it seriously, they could also shrug off the criticism of anyone who did take it seriously.

Space Cop (2016)

I — a fucking idiot on the internet — believe that that was the wrong decision, because I think they could have achieved something of decent merit with their combined talent, knowledge, and experience.

But I didn’t get whatever else they could have produced together. I got Space Cop.

And I loved it.

Space Cop (2016)

This is where the guilt comes in. They could have delivered more, and I wanted more, but we ended up with this gleefully stupid pastiche of buddy-cop films, and I adored almost every second of it.

When I reviewed Deathrow Gameshow, I said that it was frequently dumb but never stupid. Space Cop is endlessly, bottomlessly, unapologetically stupid. It relishes its own stupidity, to the point that stupidity becomes a kind of language that it is speaking, a language in which it reveals itself to be fluent.

Space Cop (2016)

I could pull it apart. I could point out all of the things that don’t work, even on the film’s own terms. I could painstakingly detail the ways in which Space Cop holds itself back. Actually, that sounds like a great idea; I will do all of these things. But — and this is important — none of that matters. At all. Because even at its roughest, its shaggiest, and its weakest, Space Cop is brilliant in its stupidity.

The film stars Evans as Space Cop, a futuristic policeman who is accidentally hurled backward in time to present-day Milwaukee. Where he again becomes a cop. He eventually teams up with Stoklasa, who plays Ted Cooper, a cop who was frozen in the past and is unthawed in present-day Milwaukee. Where he again becomes a cop.

It’s impossible to summarize any aspect of the film without it sounding ridiculous, and you can probably guess why that is.

Space Cop (2016)

Evans plays Space Cop as a gruff, grumbling tough guy with absolutely no sense of self-awareness. He’s an imbecile, a slob, and a boob who believes himself to be — against all evidence — an unstoppable force of sheer badassery. And yet even when he does succeed and receive recognition for his achievements, he’s surly and dissatisfied. He’s a completely unlikable person and, debatably, no attempt is made to redeem him in the audience’s eyes.

That sort of character sounds tedious, and usually is tedious. Space Cop may be the only truly unlikable character that I’ve ever actually liked, however. He doesn’t soften as the movie progresses, he is not redeemed, and he ends the film bitching about nobody appreciating him immediately after the city of Milwaukee holds a celebration in his honor. But I love him.

I’m sure some amount of this is down to the writing, but most of the credit belongs to Evans. Within just about every Red Letter Media production, Evans is the funny fat guy. The chubby funster. He’s in on the joke; whenever we’re asked to laugh at him, he’s ahead of us, already laughing at himself.

Space Cop (2016)

He’s a figure of fun who manages to have most of the fun himself. He is innately likeable, and that’s the key to a character like Space Cop. A film has every right to give us a shitheel protagonist, but that film has to either be okay with us hating him or give us, at some point, a reason to reconsider how we feel about him.

Or it could cast Rich Evans.

It’s impossible to hate Evans, because even as he gives Space Cop (and Space Cop) his all, he’s such a fun presence. You don’t catch him smirking and winking his way through the film; he plays Space Cop exactly like the piece of shit that the character is. But there’s a kind of cuddly magnetism to the guy wearing the ridiculous costume that keeps things just detached enough to stay funny, no matter how awful a human being Space Cop is.

Space Cop (2016)

At first I was puzzled as to why Stoklasa wasn’t playing Space Cop, with Evans as the cheerier sidekick. Ultimately, though, as much as I like Stoklasa, I suspect he would have been a bit too believable as a grumpy misanthrope.

Evans is cast against type, basically, which ends up being a joke in itself. And that leaves Stoklasa — Red Letter Media’s resident souse and the endlessly griping voice of Mr. Plinkett — to play the chipper, can-do character of Ted Cooper. He’s no better a fit for his character than Evans is for his, which is exactly why he works just as well.

Stoklasa is a natural sourpuss, so seeing him in the role of the optimist is funny. Evans is naturally jolly, so seeing him as an emotionless hardass is funny. But that’s not quite enough for a film; I think we can all agree on that. And Space Cop sometimes fails to take the joke beyond the inherent comedy of these characters existing.

Space Cop (2016)

Throughout the movie, I kept wanting things to drift into more familiar territory, if only because there was so much potential there. The movie even butts up against that potential a few times.

Both of our main cops are out of their elements. Space Cop has experience of the job that no longer applies and Ted Cooper has experience of the job that no longer applies, and their experience doesn’t overlap. They should be struggling to fit in at the same time that they’re struggling to fit together. That’s what a movie with this premise should do.

Instead, we get little more than token nods to the characters having to adjust their methods. Space Cop’s ultraviolent solutions don’t fly in present-day Milwaukee any more than Ted Cooper’s casual sexism and racism do, but those things rarely surface for anything more than a couple of lines or a scene. It’s the barest of lip service paid to what would be the defining characteristics of these people if they existed in anybody else’s version of the film.

But I think that’s okay. What’s more, I think that’s deliberate.

Space Cop (2016)

I think I’m supposed to want a story like this to unfold according to a predictable formula. I think I’m supposed to anticipate story beats that either don’t arrive or that look quite different when they do arrive. I think, basically, I’m supposed to let the film tell its shaggy dog story, because it’s the loose, meandering style of the comedy that matters.

And when you do let the film take you in its own direction, it’s funny.

What seemed to be one of the movie’s strangest choices ends up being a key to understanding it. After Space Cop is hurled backward in time, we see him awaken. He stands up. He surveys his surroundings. He sees that he is trapped in the past, in a city he both knows and does not know, in a world that does not know him at all.

Space Cop (2016)

We then jump forward eight years and see that Space Cop is exactly as we knew him from the future. He’s a boorish putz, sick of the world around him and the people who occupy it, dissatisfied with his job, and uninterested in improving himself or his situation.

That narrative time jump — occurring immediately after Space Cop makes a literal time jump — baffled me. Couldn’t writers Stoklasa and Bauman have come up with anything for Space Cop to do in those eight years? Couldn’t they have come up with jokes about how he tries to fit in, how he grapples with outdated technology, how he adjusts to life in another time?

Again, that’s what a movie with this premise should do.

Space Cop (2016)

And I’m sure Space Cop went through all of that. I’m sure Space Cop was confused by doors that didn’t open on their own and cars that didn’t fly and a moon that wasn’t colonized…but we didn’t see any of it, because that’s not the story Stoklasa and Bauman wanted to tell. All we need to know is that whatever else Space Cop got up to in the intervening years, he ended up being exactly what he was before: a miserable piece of shit police officer.

Space Cop had a life he hated, then got a chance to start over fresh. Eight years later, his choices put him precisely where he was when we first met him…only displaced in time a bit.

It’s an excellent unspoken joke, and that eight-year time skip that drove me nuts at first now feels to me like a stroke of genius. It might be the only time I’ve seen someone attempt characterization by use of negative space.

Space Cop (2016)

There is a story to Space Cop, and it actually does unfold with some kind of recognizable logic, but the comedy — correctly — comes almost entirely from Stoklasa and Evans interacting. That makes it a bit unfortunate that Stoklasa’s character takes a while to show up, but that may be a symptom of poor pacing early on.

Essentially, the film introduces Space Cop twice. First, we see him in his element, dealing with a hostage crisis that ends in unnecessary violence and collateral damage. Later, we see him in our element, dealing with a hostage crisis that ends in unnecessary violence and collateral damage. The comic doubling is clearly deliberate, but I’m not sure how necessary it is to have both scenes, especially when all they really do is scoot the proper start of the film further and further back.

In between those two introductions, we get a long scene in Space Cop’s apartment that features two distinct stretches of endurance humor.

I like endurance humor, but I have to admit that sitting through two occurrences of it — sandwiched between two introductions to the same character — when you’re still waiting for the movie to get going is a bit much.

Space Cop (2016)

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, endurance humor refers to the comedy of things deliberately dragging on for too long. See Peter Griffin grasping his knee in pain, or Eric Idle monologuing endlessly at Michael Palin’s travel agent. The joke, essentially, is less about what’s happening than the fact that you in the audience are sitting through it.

The better stretch of endurance humor here is Space Cop opening his refrigerator, a process that requires Evans to punch button after button on a keypad long enough that we understand the joke and then just long enough more that it threatens to overstay its welcome. He then opens the refrigerator into his table, which falls over, in a perfectly timed visual punchline that we didn’t even realize was being built toward.

It’s executed well, and it’s a nice bit of ridiculous future technology that is funny for the mere fact that it exists.

Space Cop (2016)

This is followed by another stretch of endurance humor, though, in which Patton Oswalt — as the chief of the Space Police — places a video call to Space Cop, speaks with Space Cop, and then can’t figure out how to end the call to Space Cop. Space Cop stares blankly at him the entire time, and there’s no real punchline.

I understand what happened. Oswalt is a celebrity. Red Letter Media got him to appear in their film, and they were understandably proud of that fact. Oswalt riffed and Red Letter Media was reluctant to cut any of it. Because, hey, it’s Patton Oswalt in their movie, and he’s giving them material. Why not use it?

Well, for a number of reasons, but I’m sure I’d struggle when faced with the same temptation. I’m a nobody making a movie, and a celebrity just handed me an extended joke that’s mine all mine. Whether or not it fits the scene as I’d imagined it, it would be difficult to talk me out of using it.

Space Cop (2016)

Stoklasa and Bauman could have cut most of Oswalt’s shtick and the scene would have been better for it. (Their film would have been tighter as well.) Or they could have cut Space Cop’s refrigerator antics, but I think they realized — correctly — that that was the funnier bit. So they ended up keeping both, causing the already bloated introduction of their film to drag even more.

I’m also not entirely sure of the decision to make Space Cop a dunce and a lout in his native time period. I think the character would work a bit better if the more obvious flaws in his police work — a reliance on technology, a propensity for violence — were commonplace in the future. We should see them as flaws, certainly, but I think his colleagues in the future should have reflected the fact that this is what police work in itself has become.

Instead, Space Cop is demoted to Space Traffic Cop for his carelessness, suggesting that other Space Cops are more competent and reliable than he is. Which, in turn, makes him a poor representative of the future.

But even that, I’m sure, is part of the joke. I’m just not sure if it’s a joke that helps or hinders the film overall.

Space Cop (2016)

Like Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, Space Cop hurls out idea after idea without always giving them the appropriate time (and, ahem, space) to land. Unlike that movie, though, Space Cop establishes its reality as elastic.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie took place in our reality with our history. Rolfe and his cronies introduced some fictional elements to what he know to be true, and then used those fictional elements to bring to life a conspiracy. In short, it’s like most works of fiction: It takes place in a world we recognize, but with fictional characters having a fictional adventure.

That caused it to unravel whenever Rolfe steered the film into territory that is not recognizably of our world, whether it’s a vehicle exploding because it ran into a pane of glass, the AVGN projectile vomiting, or the strange Super Mario Bros.-inspired home-security sequence that I’m sure only exists because someone involved with the production remembered that the movie was supposed to have something to do with video games.

Space Cop (2016)

Space Cop, wisely, does not take place in our recognizable reality. The title character is from an imagined future, his sidekick is from an unseen past, and the present is presented (forgive that) as an amalgam of buddy-cop (has anyone made a film called Buddy Cop yet?) cliches and expectations. This film’s “reality,” in other words, is one we already recognize as fictional, because we’ve seen it exclusively in other films that we can’t take seriously.

This allows for some of the best stuff in the movie.

One of these things is Dale Jackson as Chief Washington. Modeled on Cameron Mitchell’s performance in Hollywood Cop, the specific recognition gets an extra chuckle. But everyone else has seen precisely this character giving precisely these speeches in precisely this context. It’s such a clear indication of how little we’re supposed to take what passes as reality in this film seriously. It’s also funny that he keeps Space Cop on the force only because Washington has stock in their insurance company. A lesser film wouldn’t have even thought to make that joke.

Space Cop (2016)

Another of these things is the exposition about Space Cop’s wife, who was killed by somebody out for revenge. “In the future, my wife’s dead,” Space Cop tells Cooper. “In the past, she’s not even born yet.”

That in itself is a concept that other films in this vein would treat seriously, but in Space Cop the mere fact that these two characters are having this conversation is hilarious. Simply mentioning backstory like this works as a joke when you’ve structured your absurd movie well enough.

Obviously, Space Cop has an opportunity to rewrite history. And he takes that opportunity during a long sequence that sees him driving drunkenly to the home of his wife’s killer — a nine-year-old boy at this point — and trying to murder him.

Space Cop (2016)

There’s narrative logic at play here — Space Cop is neither the brightest bulb nor the best shot — but really it’s an excuse for Evans to wear a ridiculous costume and shoot at a child who is desperately trying to get away. In the process of attempting to right a future wrong, Space Cop kills the kid’s father and causes the kid to get crushed by a train.

It’s absolutely stupid, but the sheer length of the scene and Space Cop’s inability to see that he is creating the reason for revenge that will get his wife killed is marvelous. (I could do without the scene during the end credits that spells this out for us. We get it. Nobody watching could be nearly as dumb as Space Cop.)

Then there’s Cooper, whose character arc should see him reconnecting with the wife and kids he left behind in the past, or at least attempting to find them and learning what’s happened to his family. And that does happen! Off camera. At some point. And it’s dealt with in the space of a sentence or two during the ending with a great handwave.

“We didn’t forget,” the moment seems to say. “We just don’t care.” And that was one of the biggest laughs in the entire film for me.

Space Cop (2016)

With few exceptions (such as the movie’s lone fart joke), just about every bit of comedy in Space Cop at least gets close to working. Often, to be clear, it works excellently. Other times, you can easily imagine a version of the joke that works just a hair better. Rarely does a joke land with a complete thud, though it stands out when it does.

At one point, Space Cop and Cooper visit a strip club. (You’ve seen these movies. Of course they visit a strip club.) An alien in human form takes the stage, played by Jocelyn Ridgely, who I only later learned appeared as Nadine in Mr. Plinkett’s Star Wars reviews.

She’s dressed inappropriately for a stripper, which is funny enough, and then does a bizarre sort of tremoring dance in front of our heroes. Clearly she thinks this is what human strippers would do, and just as clearly she is wrong. It’s a sequence that feels like it should be much funnier than it is, and I have a hard time figuring out why it isn’t.

Space Cop (2016)

I think, ultimately, it comes down to either the blocking or the editing. The dance is funny, but the presentation of the dance fails to help it feel funny. It does build to a moment in which Space Cop tears her face apart with his fingers so…okay, that checks out.

Space Cop (2016)

But it does feel a bit like Stoklasa isn’t able to give his supporting actors the same spotlight he’s able to give himself and Evans.

Another scene might illustrate this even better. Cooper visits Dr. Snodgrass to try to figure out the aliens’ plans. Both Cooper and Snodgrass are comedy characters, but only Cooper’s lines really feel funny. I don’t think this is down to any weakness in Bo Johnson, who plays Snodgrass. I honestly thought he was one of the better actors in the film, but nothing he says feels as funny as it should.

Cooper, on the other hand, gets almost every line to hit like a punchline. “Doctor, I don’t understand a single thing you’re saying,” Cooper tells him, “and that’s your fault.”

Space Cop (2016)

That hits in a way that you want all of this dialogue to hit, but outside of Stoklasa and Evans, it almost never does.

Perhaps they’re just not sure of how to bring other characters — characters they themselves do not play — to life. This might even be supported by the comic success of the Chief Washington character; they’re familiar enough with that type of role, and so they do know to frame the shots and present it in a way that every bit of business lands correctly.

Bauman shows up in the film as well, playing another one of the aliens, and he’s good with what he gets to do. That’s surprisingly little, though; I expected a much larger role for him, but seeing him briefly is certainly better than seeing him crammed into scenes that didn’t need him.

Space Cop (2016)

The film builds — as all great films do — to an intergalactic showdown, during which Space Cop, Cooper, and Ridgley’s alien try to stop a brain in a jar. The movie gets dangerously close to taking itself seriously…and maybe it actually does. At least in a sense.

Space Cop branches here, with Cooper and Ridgley taking one path and Space Cop himself taking another.

Cooper and Ridgley work together to figure out a way to disable the spaceship, helping Cooper to realize that his understanding of women as inferior creatures is outdated and unfair. There are jokes here, but not many of them. It’s played exactly the way you’d see this played in any other movie.

On the other branch, however, we have Space Cop being Space Cop. (Which allows Space Cop to keep being Space Cop.) While the other two characters put their heads together and attempt to find an intellectual, non-violent solution to the problem, Space Cop roams the ship’s corridors, beating the living shit out of everything he sees.

Space Cop (2016)

In one particularly great moment, he meets Bauman’s alien, who explains to him that all they are trying to do is save their planet. Space Cop, in a rare moment of understanding, tells Bauman that they should have just been clear with that up front, and he wouldn’t have fought them.

“I’m not a monster,” Space Cop says, and he may even believe it right up until he’s finished speaking that sentence, at which point he blasts a hole into space that sucks Bauman to his death.

It’s great because I believe both bits of Space Cop’s personality in that moment. He doesn’t think he’s fucking awful even as he’s demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s fucking awful.

Space Cop (2016)

Eventually he even saves the day by punching a brain to death. (Actually, Cooper and Ridgley saved the day, but then Space Cop un-saved it and saved it again in a much dumber Space Cop way.) I honestly cannot think of a more appropriate climax for the film, and though I sincerely mean that as a compliment you are welcome to see as much backhandedness in it as you like.

I love Space Cop for what it is. I don’t think it shows the extent of the Red Letter Media team’s talents, and I wouldn’t dream of recommending it to someone as their first experience of these guys, but it’s a sincerely funny film that knows exactly how to regulate its stupidity. It drifts near enough to the structure of other films that we know what it’s doing, but stays reliably in its own little realm of absurdity.

Space Cop feels like a trip into somebody else’s mind, where much of the fun is in figuring out just how these thoughts are connected and how everything works. It’s not the movie I would have made, and it’s not the movie I would have hoped Stoklasa, Evans, and Bauman would make, but it’s a fascinating window into the love this little team has for awful, awful movies.

Space Cop (2016)

It doesn’t deconstruct genre tropes intelligently, it isn’t all that sharp in its parody, and it really doesn’t say much at all. But I think that’s kind of the point, and right or wrong, the team bet on the appeal of that point.

Red Letter Media gave us a satire that doesn’t satirize anything. And while it’s far from perfect, once you get over that hump of expectation, you have a comedy that’s successful more often than it’s not, with some of the most genuinely funny stuff I’ve seen in a film in years.

I think they could have made a great movie. Instead, they made Space Cop.

Maybe that’s the film’s best joke.

Space Cop (2016)

Rule of Three: Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

YouTube is fascinating. I’d like to say that it has democratized entertainment — putting programming into the hands of the people — but it’s not quite a democracy. Even unpopular channels can crank along, creating videos for an audience in the single digits with no risk of cancellation and no pressure to evolve or reach more people. It continues as long as the person who owns that channel stays interested. It’s a hobby, but one that just so happens to observable by people almost anywhere on the planet.

The vast majority of channels on YouTube are self-funded. We’ll ignore channels that are part of a brand’s marketing arm — their videos are essentially digital advertising — and focus on people who create videos, more or less regularly, about topics that interest them. These creators pay for a camera. They pay for their internet connection. They may — and often do — pay for more than that, but that’s all they need.

For a negligible investment and with the approval of no other human being necessary, people can start sharing their passions with the world.

It’s important to keep this in mind, because it’s exactly what enabled YouTube to flourish and become a legitimate medium of its own.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

In television, you have a crew. You have a cast. You have advertisers. You have censors. You have strict schedules. You have executives. In short, there are a lot of people you need to hire, keep happy, and work to retain long before you get to create and distribute any content.

On top of that, there’s the audience. People sitting on their couches with a remote control in their hands at 8:30 p.m. have a level of quality they expect from broadcast television. Not in terms of the writing or creativity, but in terms of the production. These are things of which they usually won’t be conscious. Things like the attractiveness of the actors, the familiarity of the setup, the rhythm of the show, the formula of the plot, and — we can’t forget — the precise length of the experience.

Do any of those things truly matter? Of course not, but audiences are comfortable with them. It’s what they expect. Mess with them and you don’t just end up with a show that doesn’t appeal to someone; you end up with something that feels wrong.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Let me use a real-world example here: This is the second-most-popular video by Technology Connections. (The most popular just happens to be video-game related, so we’ll skip that; I don’t want to overlap too much with what we’re going to say about The Angry Video Game Nerd.)

Click that link. You don’t need to watch beyond the opening second or two (though feel free to watch the entire thing if you are interested) to see that this is the sort of thing that would baffle audiences if they stumbled upon it on NBC…or even PBS.

I say that with love. Technology Connections is an excellent channel and — in my humble opinion — is a good representation of the absolute best of YouTube. Alec Watson is an intelligent person talking about fascinating things in a way that a fucking imbecile such as myself can follow.

Let’s imagine this same host with this same idea in 2004, the year before YouTube went live. Miraculously, Watson has landed a meeting with television executives. He pitches them the concept for exactly what you see in that video. How many confused looks would you see in that room? The answer depends solely on the number of executives present.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

He wants to do a show about air conditioning? No, he’d cover air conditioning in this episode, then color theory in another episode, then maybe hand-warmers, and then a ride at Walt Disney World. Okay, and he’ll explain how they work? Sometimes, but other times he’ll just point out things he finds interesting, or he’ll try to make his own lava lamp, or he’ll tell people why not to buy a product. Okay, well, that’s not going to fly with advertisers…who will host this? Watson will, with a disheveled head of hair and a thrift-store blazer over a nerdy T-shirt. Also he will write it himself and deliver puns with a monotone directed into one camera that never moves. Good lord…at least he can fill a time slot, right? Of course, except for the times when he can’t; depending on the topic he’ll produce an episode running anywhere from six minutes to an hour and a half.

Does Watson’s show make it to air? You already know the answer.

Even if the network wanted to move forward, they’d hire researchers so that he could cover more topics more regularly, they’d hire editors to keep everything snappy and engaging, they’d build a set instead of letting him use a cluttered background, they’d probably hire someone a bit more at ease in front of the camera…and once all of these things are addressed, is it the same show?

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Technology Connections could not have existed in 2004. Television would have been his only option, and his job wouldn’t be discussing household objects that he finds interesting; his job would be keeping his bosses happy and getting more people to tune in each week. I can’t speak for Watson, but the odds are good he’s passionate about doing one of those things more than the others.

2005 hits and everything changes. Technology Connections can exist as we know it and as Watson wishes to make it. Vloggers can exist, rambling about their mundane lives without preparation or direction. Musicians can find audiences without having to go through record labels or even their local music scene. Friends can write and produce comedy skits without trying — perhaps without even desiring — to get the attention of Saturday Night Live.

Suddenly, practically overnight, anything goes. Things that no network executive would ever commission are attracting legions of dedicated fans. People unbox toys on camera, annoy professional scammers, or throw eggs at things. Millions of people are suddenly enthralled by everything they would never watch if it were on television. Lucas Cruikshank can yell in a pitch-shifted voice, Tom Dickson can stick objects into blenders, and James Rolfe can spew profanities at old video games.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

And I don’t mean profanities that are humorously bleeped. I don’t mean TV-friendly profanities, like “Hell” or “frigging” or something that a scriptwriter made up because he couldn’t have a character say “fuck farts.” I mean long stretches of obscenity that may or may not contain the germ of valid criticism.

However much they despised a film, Roger Ebert or Rex Reed or Gene Shalit would have lost their jobs if they resorted to foul language when describing a film on the air. (And may have found themselves embroiled in scandal if they were taped doing so off the air.) For Rolfe, on YouTube, that would be his entire appeal.

There might be no better or simpler illustration of just how clearly YouTube served as television’s puckish opposite.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe — a film buff and budding director — created his Angry Nintendo Nerd character in 2004, before YouTube existed. There was no way to share those earliest episodes with a wide audience. They were confined to a VHS cassette, sitting in a drawer. Making them amused Rolfe and a handful of his closest friends. It could go no further than that.

When YouTube came around, he uploaded the two episodes he’d already made: reviews of NES games Castlevania II and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. With a virtual snap of his fingers, something that had once amused only him had a chance to amuse the world. And it did.

Rolfe continued reviewing games with his character, soon to be renamed the Angry Video Game Nerd, and he did it only because he’d found an audience who wanted more. Left to his own devices, he would have ended up doing something else with his life. Why not? He’d made his couple of profane game reviews and gotten his share of amusement from doing so. There would have been no reason to continue.

The AVGN was one of YouTube’s earliest true success stories. Rolfe inspired countless imitators who rarely had even a fraction of his appeal. He signed a deal with another website to produce videos for them. He found celebrity fans, including Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman. Allow me to emphasize that: The film director who created so many movies that had entertained Rolfe was now being entertained by Rolfe. I can’t speak for Rolfe any more than I could for Watson, but that must have been surreal.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Yelling bad words at old video games in his spare room first gave Rolfe an audience, then a source of income, then a career that continues to this day.

As his mass of imitators know — consciously or otherwise — Rolfe’s ascent is neither easy to understand nor easy to duplicate. There was luck involved, certainly. There was an element of perfect timing, with Rolfe having episodes ready to go in advance of YouTube becoming popular enough to support its own star. But the AVGN was more than the superficial thrill of seeing a man in a button-down shirt get angry at the same games that made us throw our controllers as children.

The AVGN was James Rolfe. Anyone could yell at a TV screen, but nobody else was James Rolfe.

I have to hypothesize a bit here, but I think Rolfe’s appeal was rooted less in what he was doing than in who he was. He’s an eminently likeable person. The AVGN is — and always was — a character. The actor behind the character was clearly soft spoken. His genuine love for the games he was yelling at was obvious. He was a funny person who understood the power of language, the cadence of comedy, and the necessity of careful editing.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

There was a person there, and he was a person we liked. The fact that he was on YouTube rather than CBS meant (among many other things) that we felt closer to him. There were fewer degrees of separation. There was no filter. Rolfe clicked “upload” on one end and we clicked “play” on the other. Nobody and nothing stood between Rolfe making a joke and us laughing at it, making him feel as much like a friend as he felt like an entertainer.

We will address this question more thoroughly in the next two films we cover, but for now it’s at least worth raising it: How, exactly, does somebody take this very particular appeal and translate it into a film?

With 2014’s Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, the answer seemed to be “quite poorly.” I say “seemed to be” because, prior to this review, I’d never seen it. I could only go by fan reception, which seemed to range from abysmal to “well, it looks like he was having fun.”

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The truth is, of course, more interesting than that. Having now watched the film I can see why so many people dismiss it, but I’m not sure it is worth dismissing, even if it’s not great.

I don’t know what inspired Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, nor do I know what inspired the other two films we’re covering this year. It’s very possible that in any case or in every case, somebody woke up one morning with a profound desire to get one specific story out and then set about doing so.

More likely, I think, these creators realized that they had audiences. Real audiences, who would be willing to support other creative endeavors. Audiences who, hopefully, would be willing to take a chance on a decidedly different format from the one that attracted them in the first place.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Everybody believes that they have some film inside of them, or story or novel or painting or composition, and I’m willing to believe that every one of these people is correct. They may never spend the necessary time to develop their craft or may never end up with an audience interested in whatever they produce, but each one of us has something inside that we’re capable of producing.

When you already have millions of people tuning in regularly to see what you have to say, well, what are you waiting for? Show them what you can do.

Rolfe could — probably pretty easily — have just written and performed an extra-long game review. He could have covered a bunch of different games while a loose narrative unfolded in the background. He could have created an entertaining history — or even a documentary — about the making of some particular game or series. In short, he could have given an audience exactly what they were getting from him already, only more of it and with higher production value.

Instead, he pulled the camera back a bit and let the AVGN have an adventure that had nothing to do with anger, hardly anything to do with video games, and which had the word “nerd” in it a few times. It’s the same character, but not the same context.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

It’s taking a character designed and developed for one purpose and forcing upon it a different one. It’s sending Indiana Jones into space, or sticking Cookie Monster into a hospital drama. A character we enjoyed when he did A is now suddenly doing B, and whereas it cost us nothing to enjoy A, we’re being asked to part with our money to experience B.

Rolfe is an intelligent enough guy to understand this. He must be; he shaped the entire plot of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie around the character’s refusal to review a game. He’s aware of his audience’s expectations and he has a bit of fun toying with them. But being aware that the audience wants something different isn’t quite enough; it’s what you do with that awareness that matters.

Ultimately, he doesn’t do much with it.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The film makes overtures at being “about” video games. Specifically, the notoriously terrible E.T. for the Atari 2600, a game which is frequently — and not totally fairly — blamed for the video game crash of 1983. The AVGN finds himself badgered by friends and fans to review the game, and early in the film he sets off to Alamogordo, New Mexico, the real-life location where unsold copies of E.T. were destroyed and buried.

All of which sounds like this film has quite a lot to do with video games. Really, though, E.T. could be subbed out for anything else. And, in fact, the film does sub it out at least twice: first, and most directly, for a copyright-friendly equivalent called Eee Tee, and then later for Area 51.

Half of the AVGN’s name stands for “video game,” but here it’s really just an excuse to get him on the road. That, in itself, makes sense; Rolfe may have had a road movie in mind with lots of jokes to make along the way. All E.T. (or any game) needs to do is serve as a destination; the journey is the story.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Or so it would be, except that the entire journey is skipped right over. The AVGN and his two hangers-on might as well warp directly to the New Mexican landfill for all that the trip itself matters.

That’s because the trip itself is no more interesting to Rolfe as a filmmaker than E.T. is. What he really wanted to make, it seems, was a comedy about breaking into Area 51. Everything else just happens, and any time it ties into video games — or, indeed, the AVGN — it feels incidental.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Rolfe could obviously have made a non-AVGN film with very, very few tweaks to this script. James and Friends Meet an Alien would be damned similar to what we have here and it would be free from the expectations people have of the AVGN character.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

On the other hand, Rolfe — correctly — understood that far more people would watch (and purchase) the film if it had the AVGN name on it. If he wanted to make more money, it needed to be about the AVGN. Ditto if he wanted to secure distribution, if he wanted to attract talent, and if he wanted any kind of media attention at all.

He could make a movie without the AVGN, but then he’d be back to where he was before he created the character; he’d be making a film with pocket change and a few close friends that nobody else would care about. If you think I’m being harsh here, ask yourself how many people care about The Wizard of Oz Part III: Dorothy Goes to Hell or The Head Returns, two post-AVGN film projects by Rolfe that you likely didn’t even know existed.

Rolfe could make a film about three dimwits rescuing an alien or he could stick the AVGN name on it, feint toward some vague video-game content, and reap infinitely higher viewership and profit. He’d been doing the former for decades. I can’t and won’t blame him for trying the latter. I understand how tempting it must have been.

Of course, we all know what happens after the people who lined up for the AVGN actually see the film.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

I can’t and won’t blame them, either. Rolfe set an expectation for his audience, and it’s not his audience’s fault if the film didn’t match it.

Fans who had loved — and in some cases grown up — watching him play the old games they remembered and put into profanity all of the things they were never able to say watched a movie that contains none of the games they remember and nothing in the way of observation.

What’s worse — even if it’s understandable for an indie film — is that any game footage we do see is the same kind of off-brand equivalent we might see on a sitcom…a sitcom made by writers and executives who probably don’t care enough about video games to get them right, and won’t bother trying because they don’t think their audience will care, either.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe’s sincere love of the medium — the love that inspired the AVGN series and which was felt by every viewer who ever enjoyed it — was absent, because the medium wasn’t putting in any real appearance here at all. Rolfe has no nostalgia for the bland recreations we get here, the sort of thing we might have seen on Full House if the show ever had to let us see the TV screen for some reason. He can’t have any nostalgia for these games, because these aren’t real games. For the same reason, we can’t have any nostalgia.

The common ground we felt with Rolfe does not exist within the confines of this film. He can call it the AVGN, and dress up like the AVGN, and repeat the same strings of curse words we remember from the AVGN, but the very heart of the AVGN is nowhere to be found.

What do we get instead? I’m not entirely sure.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Each of the films we’re covering this year seems to fall somewhere between the creators making a movie and the creators making fun of movies. There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at the very concept of film — parody does sometimes outlive sincerity — but it can also seem like a crutch, as though the filmmaker isn’t confident enough in their own talent to play things straight. “I was only kidding” is an all-too-easy excuse. If an audience laughs, great. If they don’t, you don’t have to take it to heart.

Watching Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, I kept wanting Rolfe to take it just a hair more seriously. Some of the biggest laughs came from the parodic moments — his friend turning into a dummy whenever he takes a nasty fall, or a battle segment being played out by toys instead of people — but they didn’t help me to enjoy the film more.

They were a second or two of laughter rather than anything that enhanced or improved the experience of watching the movie. Instead, moments like this just muddy the film’s reality and make it difficult to know what we’re meant to take seriously.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Rolfe overall gets close to making a screwball comedy as opposed to a parody, and I think the film would have been stronger if he focused on that aspect of things.

There’s a scene in which he dresses up as an alien and launches a homemade UFO into Area 51. It’s in no way realistic but it is at least anchored in a recognizable semblance of reality. It’s a buffoonish sequence, but it works for a buffoonish character in a buffoonish movie. Cutting to a prairie dog puppet saying curse words simply because that’s ostensibly something somebody might laugh at…well, even if that does work, it’s incongruous. It doesn’t fit. (And it also doesn’t work, but that’s beside the point.)

For two more-easily comparable examples, we can look at the film’s pastiche sequences.

In one, the AVGN essentially finds himself in the middle of a zombie film. Rolfe, horror buff, gets to live out what I’m sure was a lifelong dream as he’s munched on by the undead. The AVGN then wakes up from the nightmare, and rightly so, because zombies would break the reality of the film. Rolfe, correctly, corrals this sequence off from what actually happens in his movie.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

In the other, the AVGN’s buddies essentially find themselves in the middle of a kaiju film. Rolfe, again a massive fan of the genre, gets to live out what I’m sure was a lifelong dream by directing a huge monster as it smashes through a model city. The difference is that this actually does happen in the movie. It’s not a dream. It breaks the reality as much as zombies would, except that this has no narrative handwave. We are just suddenly watching a little bit of a kaiju film when the majority of the movie was grounded in a world we recognize by a logic we understand.

Again, I mean to make clear that either approach is okay. You can have wacky stuff happen in dreams or you can have wacky stuff happen in reality, but you need to decide before you make the film what things can only happen in dreams and what things can actually happen in reality. There is no wrong answer, but if you don’t have an answer — or your movie makes it seem like you don’t have an answer — people will be confused at best.

Rolfe didn’t make a parody, but he wants viewers to excuse Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie whenever it briefly becomes one. The fact that it does keep abruptly becoming one (and then just as abruptly stops being one) is evidence of a lack of restraint on his part as a filmmaker. Then again, we may not need even need that evidence; the fact that Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is almost two fucking hours long is evidence enough.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

It’s difficult to see a running time of 110 minutes on a YouTube vanity film and believe that the length is justified, and Rolfe seems to take every opportunity throughout the film to even further convince you that it’s not. Between fantasy sequences, montages of fans gushing about the AVGN, lengthy flashbacks, and a deeply strange animated tangent about his buddy Cooper’s wackadoo beliefs, the film didn’t just have opportunities for tightening up; it’s practically pleading with the audience to edit it themselves.

Speaking of tightening up, I guess I might as well talk about what little story there actually is in this film. I wish I could say that without sounding dismissive, but there are so many false starts, abandoned threads, and left-field developments that it’s less a narrative than a bulleted list of things that happen. Still, we’ve come this far…

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Cockburn Industries decides to develop an intentionally terrible Eee Tee 2, expecting it to sell well due to its predecessor’s infamy. Coincidentally, somewhere else, the AVGN exists. A woman who works at Cockburn decides to get the AVGN to review and endorse the game. This inspires the AVGN to do nothing. Coincidentally, somewhere else, the AVGN’s friend Cooper exists and is inspired to inspire the AVGN to do something. The AVGN says no and then says yes.

The two friends and the woman arrive in New Mexico via the magic of editing, where the Eee Tee cartridges are buried. This angers a bunch of soldiers and government officials, because the kids might find Area 51 which is in a different state. Meanwhile, only one person in the world can tell them the secret behind the development of Eee Tee. Instead of finding him, the kids find someone else who can tell them the secret behind the development of Eee Tee.

A soldier kidnaps the woman and brings her to Las Vegas while a giant monster rises from Mt. Fuji and the AVGN’s friend plays Eee Tee which either causes an alien to escape from Area 51 or doesn’t have anything to do with the alien’s escape from Area 51, so the AVGN and the alien fly a plane and then the AVGN and the alien get out of the plane. Then it’s night time and the movie ends.

Watching Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie is a weird experience, because it stumbles across as many terrible ideas as it does good ones and then can’t seem to decide what to focus on. It’s so disjointed that I often couldn’t even tell what I was meant to feel while watching it.

Near the end of the film, for instance, the AVGN’s friend kisses the woman, and they had so little to do with each other prior to that point that I expected it to be a joke, with the woman saying to him, “Why did you do that? Who even are you?” But instead I guess they’re in love. And, hey, good for them! Love is a wonderful thing. I just wonder if I should have seen any of it since I did watch the entire film and all.

Also, the woman pretends to be a nerd — I guess? — so that she can get closer to the AVGN and get him to endorse Eee Tee 2. But she also never makes a secret of who she works for or what she wants from him, so why bother pretending to be a nerd? And why does it feel like a betrayal when the boys learn that she doesn’t actually need glasses? She went through some degree of effort to lie to them, but the lie didn’t conceal anything at all. She comes to them in nerd form but is still openly trying to get them interested in endorsing Cockburn’s product. What was the point of lying if she wasn’t lying about the only significance she had in the story?

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

You can play with things like this — have plot developments happen due to expectation alone and have that be a joke — but I don’t feel as though the film actually builds to these moments as punchlines. They’re just things that happen, which might be another symptom the fact that the film can’t decide what constitutes its own reality.

It has some nice moments. I like the way it explores Rolfe’s own legacy, which is worth doing; there’s a reason I spent so much time discussing it myself up above. The fact that the vitriol he (sometimes literally) spews at terrible games results in people tracking down and playing those games instead of avoiding them is funny. It’s also a valid observation and a weird enough phenomenon that it’s worth poking fun at.

Then there’s the cast, and I can’t fault any of them. Rolfe is as naturally likeable as ever. Jeremy Suarez as his friend Cooper is perfectly fine. Sarah Glendening should get to do more than look pretty behind nerd glasses, but she’s fine with the material she gets.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

The film does manage to intermittently shine with a couple of bit parts. The first is the AVGN’s boss, played by the consistently reliable Eddie Pepitone. Pepitone is a riot here, shifting from flattering the AVGN to verbally abusing him to pulling a gun on him, selling every step in the process. I don’t know how much of his performance was scripted and how much was improvised, but it’s a great little scene that is elevated for its craziness.

The other, maybe not coincidentally, is another crazy old guy, this time played by Stephen Mendel. Mendel’s general is fueled by pure rage and is quick to violence, which usually ends with him getting gruesomely injured. He’s funny, and due to the nature of the sight gags I’d guess most of his performance was dictated by the script. If that’s the case, good on Rolfe and his cowriter Kevin Finn, who here did manage to create a zany character without throwing the film’s reality off kilter.

I also liked the alien’s voice, which I could have sworn I recognized. I looked him up and it’s Robbie Rist, who has been in too many things to mention and I can’t possibly narrow down where I thought I knew him from. I did learn, however, that he played the notorious Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, so good lord am I glad the guy still had a career after that.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

I remember when Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie was released. It came to a tiny little movie theater just a few blocks from me, and I had every intention of seeing it. I had some other things going on in my life at the time and the theater stopped showing it before I had a chance to check it out. Then I heard about the film’s negative reception. I still wanted to make up my own mind, but I felt quite a bit less compelled to seek it out.

Fans weren’t happy. I don’t think I saw anyone saying they liked it, at least not without qualifying the statement by adding “for what it was.” At worst, people started accusing Rolfe of misusing the funds that fans had given to him to make the movie. They called it a scam. They called Rolfe a thief.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

They’re idiots. At this point I can safely say that I don’t like the movie, but I’m nowhere near moronic enough to suggest that I know how much the film should have cost or how much Rolfe obviously stuck into his pocket instead. Even carefully planned professional productions go over budget. They face unforeseen obstacles or see costs inflate from what they estimated. Nobody can know in advance what a film will cost; they do their best to estimate it and then do their further best not to exceed that estimate.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie was neither carefully planned nor professional. Whatever it cost, it cost. And, frankly, I think people know that Rolfe didn’t use this as some kind of elaborate embezzlement scheme. (There are far easier ways to steal money from fans; just ask the Nostalgia Critic.)

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Instead, the accusatory blowback was the internet’s predictably awful way of saying, “I did not enjoy your film.”

That sentiment, at least, I get. Rolfe put the name of his show in the title of a film that had precious little to do with his show. He stuck his character into a movie that neither needed nor benefited from that character’s presence. He was willing to gamble some degree of credibility against the potential for a larger audience.

I understand that temptation.

In that situation — being loved for one thing and really hoping to transfer that love to something else — I quite possibly would have done the same thing. And, like him, I would also have known the risk of taking that bet.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Even now, after watching the film, after knowing it would sour a decent chunk of his audience on him, after seeing that people would accuse him of criminal activity expressly on the grounds that they didn’t think his space-alien movie was funny, I can’t blame him.

For whatever reason, he wanted to make this movie. He did what he had to do in order to make it. In a very large and legitimate way, that is an achievement.

And in another way?

Well, it looks like he was having fun.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014)

Announcing: Rule of Three 2021

I’d like to interrupt this period of not watching “Spock’s Brain” to announce this year’s lineup for Rule of Three. If you aren’t familiar with Rule of Three, that’s your own fault; I provided a link to it at the end of the previous sentence and you chose not to click it.

In short, every April I take long, meandering, patently unhelpful looks at three related comedy films. The series begins April 1, with the second and third posts following one and two weeks later. It’s extremely complicated.

This year, I’m covering something I’ve been considering since the very start of this series: films made by YouTube celebrities.

You will probably read that and think it’s a chance for me to pick on some low-budget films and make fun of people I don’t like. And that does sound like a hell of a lot of fun! But in the interests of fairness and basic human decency, I’m choosing to focus only on YouTube celebrities I actually enjoy.

These are three films that — for one reason or another — I haven’t gotten to see yet. This series gives me not only an excuse to watch them, but to discuss the creators and their work.

Maybe I’ll enjoy the films. (I certainly hope I will.) Maybe I will not. Either way, these are people I respect, and critically discussing what they did when they asked audiences for 90 minutes of their time is my way of saying thanks. You know, like I said thanks to Purple People Eater.

At the request of a few kind folks, I am now providing links to help people watch the films in advance. Please know that these are not affiliate links; I make no money from any purchases you may make, so feel free to buy them from any other service that works for you.

And now, the schedule:

April 1: Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie (2014) (Amazon Prime)
April 8: Space Cop (2016) (Amazon Prime)
April 15: Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild (2013) (Vimeo)

Be sure to tune in Thursday, April 1, for my full review of Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. Followed by, hopefully, some better movies.

Thank you all, as always, for your support. I hope you enjoy this year’s essays.

Rule of Three: Disco Godfather (1979)

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. At least, that’s what they say. Rudy Ray Moore was never very big, though, and it’s difficult to imagine a fall harder than Disco Godfather.

The movie wasn’t just disappointing; it singlehandedly sunk Moore’s career. It was a movie so bad it seemed expertly designed to dismantle everything Moore had built. It’s a strange product of monumental misjudgment that is almost beyond understanding.

Watching it is a dismal experience. It’s sad and disheartening. Every artist ends up producing garbage at some point, but Disco Godfather is like watching gravity reassert itself, the universe finally realizing Moore had bent the rules and now must be punished. If that sounds overly dramatic, so be it; I’m talking about Disco Godfather, and “overly dramatic” is the nicest thing anyone can possibly say about this movie.

With Dolemite, Moore left his stamp on the action film. With Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law, he left his stamp on the horror film. Here, in Disco Godfather, he attempts to leave his stamp on a drama.

Until this point, Moore had the golden touch, transforming a number of bad ideas into successful endeavors, so nobody can really blame him for thinking he might have been able to do the same with Disco Godfather.

The difference is that Moore’s sense of humor, innate charm, and hammy performances work damn well when paired with action or horror, two genres audiences often turn to for a good time. Audiences don’t turn to drama when they want a fun night out, making Moore a distractingly poor fit for the film. It doesn’t help that Disco Godfather was essentially Moore’s then-modern retelling of Reefer Madness.

To be completely fair to Moore and to everyone else who worked on the film, PCP / angel dust / wack (the film calls it by all three names) is bad. I think we can all agree on that. Whereas the hysteria over marijuana was largely misplaced and mishandled, I don’t think many of us reading this would feel comfortable learning that a friend or family member were a regular user of PCP.

There’s nothing wrong, then, with framing the drug as A Bad Thing within the context of a film. What is bad — what demonstrably turned out to be bad — is building approaching it with all of the intelligence and nuance of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.

It’s also at least a little embarrassing that Disco Godfather attempts to ride the momentum of a scene that was already well into decline by 1979. It’s not the sort of thing folks will recognize as easily today (if something is set in the 1970s, disco is fair — and almost necessary — game), but when a reporter visits The Disco Godfather to discuss “the disco dance craze, you know, why it’s happening,” well after disco’s peak, it had to strike audiences as being embarrassingly out of touch.

Moore, of course, plays The Disco Godfather himself. If there’s one genre of music Rudy Ray Moore is the least associated with, it’s got to be Bavarian zither folk. But disco would certainly be a close second.

It’s genuinely sad to watch Moore pretend he has any interest in disco whatsoever, a mere five years after he bucked every trend imaginable for Dolemite. Moore was always chasing his own vision; Disco Godfather forces him to chase one he can’t possibly have shared.

And though he tried — God bless him, he did try — no kind of love or enthusiasm for the material comes through. Even during his trademark rhyming monologues, the music drowns him out. Whether that’s due to terrible audio mixing or an uncommonly muted delivery by Moore, we can read a hell of a lot into that.

Before I get too far into this, let me say one thing clearly: I love disco. My criticism of Disco Godfather isn’t some way to score cheap laughs by swinging at a universal punching bag.

I wouldn’t dare say disco is good music, but it’s fun. It makes me feel good. It’s danceable. It’s light and often silly but it also has this driving, irresistible quality that can bring me up no matter how low I’m feeling.

In fact, before watching it, I expected to adore Disco Godfather. Rudy Ray Moore and disco? Sign me the fuck up.

It’s not that I went into this film with a closed mind. I did something far worse: I went into it ready to be entertained.

Disco Godfather begins with a sequence it repeats with minor variations regularly throughout the film: extras disco dance for minutes on end.

They’re at Blueberry Hill, a dance club run by The Disco Godfather. It’s the hottest disco around, as I’m sure we’d expect from one named after a song that was nearly 40 years older than disco. We’re led to believe that The Disco Godfather himself is the main draw, and that’s fine, but I’m not really sure how that can be true.

Admittedly, Moore is a showman, and both Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw understandably drew upon that talent to position him as the main draw for the central clubs in those films as well. Disco Godfather doing the same thing is perfectly reasonable on paper, but a disco is a very different kind of club. It’s loud. People dance. They pay attention to each other, to the groove, to the drugs that are passed around. In the previous movies we discussed, patrons would pay to sit down and watch a show. In this movie, the patrons are the show.

Disco Godfather must realize this on some level; it knows nobody is paying attention to Moore reciting his rhyming monologues as irrelevant disco beats drown him out. But the film wants us to believe the entire reason folks flock to Blueberry Hill is for these very performances they can’t possibly even hear.

The film could, of course, actively paint Moore’s character as the relic of a bygone age; clubs have evolved to the point that his particular brand of performance might still be respected but is no longer embraced. Moore might still have talent, but audiences have moved on.

That would be a sad story, but not as sad as Disco Godfather, which unwittingly paints him as exactly that kind of relic while asking us not to acknowledge it. Instead of telling us Moore has lost touch, it shows us instead. It’s a more convincing and damning argument than a script written around the idea could have ever been.

On this particular evening, The Disco Godfather’s nephew, Bucky, goes outside to kiss his girlfriend. His friend is also outside. His girlfriend tells Bucky not to smoke angel dust. His friend tells Bucky to smoke angel dust. Bucky smokes angel dust.

We don’t see him smoke it; instead we see his girlfriend storm back into the club, screaming and weeping to an extent that makes it seem like Bucky must have been killed in a drive-by shooting. She rushes up to The Disco Godfather, who halts his set immediately — and understandably — to find out what’s wrong.

What’s wrong is that Bucky smoked angel dust. The Disco Godfather tells the girl to call an ambulance.

Bucky — out of his mind on PCP — stumbles into the club, has visions, runs out of the club, and is indeed taken away by an ambulance. This is tragic, certainly, but the overacting makes it feel like he’s being taken away by a coroner instead.

Bucky’s visions are the first of many we’ll see in the film; they all take place in a black void with very minimal lighting shining on the characters or monsters we’re meant to pay attention to. The lighting is a bit less red, which is the only thing that differentiates these scenes from the Hell sequences in Petey Wheatstraw. When the drama we’re supposed to take seriously is shot exactly like the horror comedy we were meant to laugh at, there’s a problem.

The Disco Godfather is upset. Bucky has a promising basketball career, but injures his hand in some unexplained way during his angel dust hallucinations, so he won’t be able to play. He’s visited many times during his long recovery by The Disco Godfather — or, in this case, his Disco Uncle — and Dr. Mathis.

Mathis is played by Moore’s regular collaborator Jerry Jones, who we remember from Dolemite both as FBI Agent Blakely and the screenwriter.

Honestly, he’s one of the few actors who acquits himself well enough in Disco Godfather. In the midst of the histrionics, he manages to stay relatively reserved. That may well be down to a lack of range in his acting — we’ve only ever seen him reserved — but it works wonders here to make Dr. Mathis feel like the lone human amongst the Muppets.

His role consists of little other than delivering exposition and the requisite Bad News to the families of his patients. It’s a role that exists entirely for the sake of its own function, but it’s not Jones’ fault that someone needs to spur The Disco Godfather into action.

“Haven’t you heard, Godfather?” he asks The Disco Godfather. “Our children are dying.” And with that, The Disco Godfather sets about a tried-and-true Rudy Ray Moore objective: cleaning up the streets.

It’s hardly surprising that if Moore were to make a message movie, this would be the message. Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw might have had some muddled moralities, but it was clear that Moore saw the spread of drugs, the influence of pushers, and the frequency of violence as serious issues in impoverished communities.

What’s more, Moore was no fool; he was fully aware of the fact that Dolemite gunning down corrupt cops and Petey sending winos to Hell were not actions compatible with what he’d see as true social progress, and that was okay. He was making movies that were primarily fun.

Disco Godfather is no fun at all, because — like Dr. Mathis — it exists for the sake of its own function. It’s preachy and didactic. Rudy Ray Moore running a disco could have been a raucous, farcical delight. But for the message to come through — for the morality to remain unmuddled — it had to be direct and sincere. It couldn’t be something people might think about when they were done laughing; it had to be something they’d think about during every second of the film and think about even more deeply every second afterward.

All of which would have been fine for a commercial-break PSA featuring Moore, but it makes for one hell of a dismal film.

What’s even stranger — or more disappointing, depending upon your perspective — is the way in which his character goes about cleaning up the streets.

In Dolemite, he ripped the guts out of a pusher with his bare hands. In Petey Wheatstraw, he waved his magical pimp cane. These are two things that are very easy to associate with Moore and the persona he crafted for himself.

In Disco Godfather, he does probably the last thing we’d associate with Moore’s persona: He goes to the police.

There are a few layers to this incongruity, but at the very least it seems to be a pretty passive way of dealing with the problem. Part of Moore’s appeal — both on screen and off — was his willingness to buck the system, to find his own solutions to problems, to, in a word, Get Shit Done.

That’s part of what makes us love characters, heroes and scoundrels alike. We enjoy and appreciate their inventiveness and their dedication to accomplishing whatever it is they’d like to accomplish. In fact, the journey toward that very accomplishment often defines who they are.

For The Disco Godfather to stroll into a police station and say, “I would like some cops to fix this problem, please,” is to dissolve every reason anybody would have wanted to watch a Rudy Ray Moore movie.

There’s more to it than that, I admit, but the complication is one that far from works in the film’s favor.

See, we learn that The Disco Godfather used to be a cop. A great cop, actually, who retired to run a disco for God knows what reason. Maybe because it’s always been his dream to recite rhyming monologues behind music too loud for anyone to hear him.

In a way, this is good; The Disco Godfather gets permission to work with his old colleagues, keeping him involved in the action and — potentially — the problem’s resolution. In another way, Rudy Ray Moore isn’t just scampering for help from the police; he is the police.

This is what I mean by Disco Godfather feeling like it was specifically dismantling anything people liked about Moore. The man who famously spat in the face of the establishment was suddenly part of that establishment. It was essentially like Moore breaking character at the end of an incendiary comedy routine to say to the audience, “We’ve all had a lot of fun here tonight, folks, but, please, let’s remember that the boys in blue are our friends and they deserve nothing less than our deepest respect.”

It’s not something Moore’s audience would appreciate, which is why Disco Godfather ended up having no audience.

The film worked overtime to position the energetic upstart Moore as a crusty representative of the old guard. It’s strange and disorienting. For how out of touch it wanted Moore to seem, the film probably should have been called Disco Grandfather.

The PCP is being manufactured and distributed via a system run by Stinger Ray (Hawthorne James in the first of what would be many, many film roles to follow, making his career perhaps the only positive thing to come out of this fiasco). On the surface, Ray is a…sports entrepreneur, for lack of a better term? He’s in the public eye for founding a basketball team (“The Stingrays, of course!”) consisting entirely of players who were turned down by the NBA.

“You take a guy who’s played ball most of his life,” Ray says to a reporter. “He’s going to be hungry. If he can’t make the NBA, he’s going to be mad and hungry. With my new team, the objective is to pick up those guys. I can’t lose.”

…which does make a kind of sense but really doesn’t separate The Stingrays from any other team. Don’t all teams take the best players they can get? Aren’t those players often only available because other teams have passed them up?

That’s just a bit of faulty logic, which any film will have, and it’s washed away beneath a much larger, much more idiotic example of narrative confusion: Why would Stinger Ray want to flood with drugs the very streets from which he hopes to draw his basketball talent? This isn’t one of those “hey waitaminute…” realizations you’ll only have later; it’s an explicit plot point in the film.

It’s Ray who is supplying the PCP to Bucky. Bucky, the promising young basketball star who can’t play because he’s so strung out on PCP he can’t get out of bed at the hospital.

What is Ray’s endgame? Does he prefer the money he makes from the drugs to the money he could be making from his basketball team? If so, why put himself in the public eye by owning a basketball team at all? And if not, why bother with the drugs?

The answer can’t be “he wants both,” because one is explicitly being held back by the other. He can’t have a team of overlooked superstar basketballers and a team of braindead PCP zombies. I guess I should admire Ray’s willingness to diversify, but it really seems like he hasn’t thought any of this through.

All of this makes him seem like far more of a boob than this movie needs him to seem. Stinger Ray is meant to stand as the first genuine threat in a Rudy Ray Moore movie. That’s an honor not even Satan himself was granted. For once, the question wasn’t “How is Moore going to kick this guy’s ass?” Now it was, “This guy is so scary and so powerful and such an imposing figure, can Moore do anything at all?”

All while Disco Godfather makes it hard for anyone to believe this guy even knows how to tie his shoes.

In addition to the clubs, drugs, street cleaning, and rhyming monologues, we also get two other Rudy Ray Moore hallmarks: kung fu and womanizing. The kung fu doesn’t seem to be shot nearly as well as it was in Petey Wheatstraw — which is saying something — but in keeping with tearing down Moore’s image, The Disco Godfather doesn’t seem to be all that good at fighting, being easily overpowered by two goons disguised as telephone repairmen.

It’s more realistic, sure — even somebody with training would likely find himself beaten by two men who got the drop on him — but it’s much less fun.

Ditto the womanizing. Here, his lone conquest is Noel, played by Carol Speed. She’s neither a bad character nor a bad actor, but she certainly doesn’t leave an impression. The sex scene also just involves Moore thrusting on top of her in a flat angle; it’s a far cry from the room-destroying intercourse of The Human Tornado or the fast-motion carnal buffet of Petey Wheatstraw.

More realistic, again, sure, but no human being wanted to see a “realistic” Rudy Ray Moore film. All it does is rob the man of his particular magic, leaving him exposed, floundering in the light.

There’s even a scene in which Moore interacts with kids that seems like a direct response to one in Petey Wheatstraw. In that film he found some kids who were too distracted by the game they were playing to realize they were in danger of being run over. Petey defuses the situation but gives them (at least partially) deserved guff for their carelessness. He then combs the hair of one of them until the kid cries.

Here, he encounters kids equally distracted by their game of jacks. He offers them a quarter if they can pick up all of the jacks at once. The kids ignore him and do everything short of saying “fuck off.” He pays them anyway, and the kids run away. “Kids is a lot of fun, ain’t they, man?” he says afterward, without a hint of irony.

The Disco Godfather intermittently sets about tracking down the source of the PCP. It involves a puzzling assassination attempt at Blueberry Hill, which sees the thugs gunned down by the cops, only The Disco Godfather knows they aren’t real cops, and then the real cops do show up for some reason and arrest The Disco Godfather for having nothing to do with the assassination attempt, I guess, and later we find out the fake cops were working with the thugs?

I have no idea, in short, why the people working together to kill The Disco Godfather would instead kill each other or why the people working with The Disco Godfather to catch the bad guys would arrest him for literally doing nothing other than spinning records while the bad guys shot each other.

I’m starting to believe this movie wasn’t especially well thought out!

The Disco Godfather talks with Dr. Mathis, who walks him through a clinic of patients destroyed by PCP. They’re actors who mumble to themselves and make faces while Dr. Mathis tells horrific tales of what they’ve done to themselves and others.

One woman holding a doll was preparing dinner for her family while blitzed on angel dust. She heard the ham crying, so she cooked it…only it was actually her baby! You know; the cautionary tale we all heard growing up, told to us by someone who knew someone whose neighbor’s distant relative did exactly that.

It’s also something that has never happened in the history of mankind. For such a realistic film, couldn’t Disco Godfather have given us a more relatable — or at least less clearly fabricated — example of how a parent might harm or kill a child while under the influence?

Driving while intoxicated. Falling asleep with a cigarette in their mouth. Shaking a baby that won’t stop crying. Falling down the stairs while holding the kid. Passing out on the floor while Little Johnny finds his way into the cleaning products and drinks some bleach.

Disco Godfather, I’m trying to say, has its heart in the right place. If it wants to tell a story about how drugs ruin lives, go for it. But at show how drugs do ruin lives, and don’t resort to dramatic reenactments of dead-eyed women serving roast baby at Thanksgiving dinner.

Elsewhere in the film Dr. Mathis and the reporter who is excited about this whole up-and-coming disco thing speak at an “Attack the Wack” anti-drug rally. It serves no narrative purpose, isn’t funny, isn’t interesting, sheds no additional light on anything we know, and doesn’t advance the plot. It’s an anti-drug screed embedded in what’s already a feature-length anti-drug screed.

The Disco Godfather pays a visit to Bob, a kindly old teacher who may have some information on how to track down the head dealer. I just watched the movie and already can’t remember if Bob told our hero anything useful; he exists only so the drug dealers can murder him as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, The Disco Godfather buys Bob a dog so that the drug dealers can also murder the dog as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, instead of killing all these things as warnings to The Disco Godfather you’d think they’d just go ahead and kill The Disco Godfather, but what do I know?

Ultimately, our obsolete hero manages to track down Stinger Ray. Or, rather, he’s captured by Stinger Ray’s goons, including a cartoon cowboy.

The Disco Godfather defeats him, and then defeats a bunch of other people, too, with the help of a passing jogger.

“What’s happening man, you need some help?” the jogger asks. “This is an angel dust factory,” replies The Disco Godfather. The jogger says, “Angel dust?!” then immediately tears off his shirt and starts beating up the bad guys.

I’m about 60% sure this was a deliberate joke. I’m 100% sure it’s the funniest thing in the movie.

The Disco Godfather then does what he does best: nothing. He gets knocked out and tied to a chair, where a gas mask is fitted over his face and pumped full of PCP. As another warning, I guess.

Again, this entire film has consisted of nothing but opportunities to murder The Disco Godfather, but the guys who want him dead don’t seem to realize that.

He overpowers his captors and gets the mask off, but not before…y’know…breathing. Which means the entire final sequence is the most embarrassingly dramatized drug trip in motion-picture history.

The Disco Godfather sees a demon — the same demon other PCP users see, so I guess she’s real — and also his mother, for no reason except so that she can turn into the demon. Then he finds Stringer Ray and beats him up while actual cartoons are drawn over the image in a way that somebody, somewhere, at some point, must have believed would be…

…scary? Effective? Interesting? I honestly have no clue what they were going for here, but I’m confident in saying they didn’t achieve it.

Then Bucky shows up, because while we weren’t looking he recovered from his injuries and kicked his PCP habit. But he sees that The Disco Godfather is in the thralls of an angel dust trip and he screams and the movie ends.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Petey Wheatstraw also ended on a freeze frame of a screaming Moore, but that was a comedy with a story. The freeze frame on Petey’s realization that he’s going to Hell was both an ending and a punchline.

Here, it’s just the last bit of film on the reel. Nothing about The Disco Godfather being interrupted mid-trip has anything to do with what we’ve seen. Not narratively, not thematically, not emotionally. It has nothing to do with his character or anybody else’s character. It’s not affecting or worrying or frightening. It feels like the movie literally saying, “Okay, that’s it; we are done making Disco Godfather.”

And if that’s what it is, then that’s honestly the best creative choice made by Disco Godfather.

I get that drugs “winning” in the end is what matters. However much the police push back, however much citizens do their part, however many Disco Godfather movies we make, drugs will remain a serious threat. They shouldn’t be trivialized, the movie believes, and that’s okay. That’s a valid perspective.

But we don’t see drugs “win.” We see one character who has no interest in them caught in a hallucination. He’ll go to the hospital just like Bucky did — Dr. Mathis is even here already — and he’ll be given a safe space to recover. The Disco Godfather isn’t hooked on drugs. The Disco Godfather hasn’t baked any babies. The Disco Godfather won’t start pushing angel dust on kids.

He’s just a man whose story artificially ends in a moment of temporary difficulty. The audience isn’t left asking, “What happens next?” It’s left asking, “Why did this movie happen at all?”

The Disco Godfather — like the movie named after him — ends on a low point. It didn’t have to, but it does.

And that’s also where it left Rudy Ray Moore.

He appeared in a few other films, but never again would he have the creative control he once managed to seize when nobody was looking. Often he was relegated to winking cameos, either playing or channeling Dolemite. He was like Bob Denver, turning up whenever somebody needed a Gilligan because that’s all anybody would pay him for.

In 2002, long after any kind of comeback stood a chance, Moore starred in The Return of Dolemite. He was in his mid-70s by this time and spent as much of the film as possible sitting in chairs. In 2008, he passed away at the age of 81.

For a man of such natural drive and charisma, for the underdog who consistently dreamed big and held onto ambitions long after saner men would have given up, this must have been agony.

Moore had managed it once. He’d reached for the stars and actually plucked one of them out of the sky. Surely, he must have thought in the almost three decades between the film that killed his career and the day he died, he’d be able to do it again.

Interviews leading up to The Return of Dolemite (retitled The Dolemite Explosion for home media, for reasons I cannot fathom) saw Moore feeling optimistic. He was excited. He believed the movie would be good and he did his best not to spoil any of the fun ahead of time. He wanted people to go see it in theaters and roar with appreciation the way they had when they’d seen the first Dolemite.

But that audience had moved on, and Moore never found a new one. The movie quietly drifted into and out of theaters, and that was that. Moore must have known on some level that his career had ended, but the failure of The Return of Dolemite made it clear that his career was never coming back.

I’d love to tell you Disco Godfather is better than its reputation suggests. I’d love to tell you it’s a hidden gem. I’d love to tell you there are enough worthwhile moments to justify watching it at least once.

I can’t do that, and that’s the frustrating thing. Somebody like Moore really should have spent his last true moment in the spotlight doing everything he did best. It should have been something we could look at in retrospect and realize was ahead of its time, or artistically daring, or at least ambitious.

But it’s not. Nothing about the film works, and nothing about the film seems like it could have worked.

Disco Godfather did the impossible; it made Rudy Ray Moore seem disposable. It broke the spell that had elevated the man above his station, and it wasn’t even a movie that was worth the gamble. Moore spent his life assuring the world he’d have something to say if only they’d listen, and then they did listen and he gave them Disco Godfather. They weren’t going to listen again.

His earlier films are worth revisiting. Moore was a singular talent, the likes of whom don’t come about often and are given a platform even more rarely. He was crude and ridiculous and deeply fucking lovable, and he did what every single person reading this review (and the guy writing it) wish they could do: He dreamed up a perfect world for himself, and then brought it to life.

Disco Godfather is easy enough to ignore. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he made this film rather than literally anything else.