aka Future Cop
On the evidence of Trancers, one might easily conclude the original version of Da 5 Bloods, before Spike Lee doused it with effluent, was a much more engaging and humorous affair, since both share screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. And if it’s true that Jimbo Cameron was a fan of Trancers, I wouldn’t be overly surprised. Because, for all that Charles Band’s movie shamelessly rips off Blade Runner, The Terminator and – at least to some batty and highly tenuous degree – Scanners, it does so with wit and inventiveness, while being cheerfully unpretentious about its low-budget trappings and more than willing to have a liberal dollop of self-conscious fun with them.
Deth: If you think I’m bringing that scum up the line, you got the wrong trooper.
Trancers finds the magnificently named – so magnificently, it meets with repeated ridicule of the “What kind of name is that?” variety – Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), a 23rd century cop who wrongly believes he has finished off criminal nemesis Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani), transported to 1985 in pursuit of the not-dead-after-all villain. Whistler turns people into Trancers, whereby they become “slave to Whistler’s psychic power”; quite how this power works (they “aren’t alive, but aren’t dead enough”), or why it results in physical deterioration in its victims – quite suddenly, and akin to necrotising zombies – is unclear, but as part of the movie’s overall melange, the brew simply cannot get too rich.
Deth: Dry hair’s for squids.
Thomerson walks exactly the right line in hard-boiled hammery as Deth, appropriately introducing us to this scenario via a weary introductory narration. He gets us up to speed immediately following his dispatch of the Whisperer (on Mekon VII – so it appears Deth’s future has planets one can travel to via NASA space), such that “It’s July now. I’m tired. Real tired”. Band’s low-budget future is very much Sir Ridders-inspired, all dry ice and neon, and Deth wears a trench coat – with futuristic shoulder pads – and slicks back his hair. He also has a thing against squids: “Trancing only works on squids. People with weak minds”. One might surmise there are a lot suitable en-Tranced about right now, in that case.
Deth: How can you be sure Whistler’s gone down the line?
Bilson and De Meo have fashioned colourful language and allusions throughout, the best sign of imaginations at work; they know creating a tangible world is as much about the half-formed references as the stuff you can see. Squids, Trancers, “down the line” (the term for time travel to the past). This future has augmented autos, mattes of a flooded LA, a referenced sub fleet and warnings that, should Whistler succeed “We’ll be plunged into the same chaos that followed the Great Quake”. Lest you doubted this was a dystopia, essentials are scarce (“Coffee – the real stuff? That’s gonna cost you”; “Beef? You mean, from a cow?”) and archaeology comprises retrieving hubcaps and street signs from the submerged city.
The writers’ idea for time travel is also ingenious; one cannot travel physically but can be transferred consciously, via a “synthesised time drug” to an ancestor’s body. It appears that, in a reverse of The Terminator – and it may have been that simple an inspiration as that – organic matter cannot pass through time but inert objects can (along with consciousness). So Jack arrives in the body of Phil Dethton (!), while Whistler is occupying Detective Weisling (an idea The Hidden would also later use for dramatic effect).
Whistler’s scheme is thus a little more ornate than the T-800’s (“One by one your ancestors shall be murdered and you, their progeny, shall cease to exist”), and there’s evidently no thought given to the Butterfly Effect in terms of the things Whistler does manage to do. That said, Bilson and De Meo have more than enough to be getting on with. It also bears noting that Deth travels from July 2247 to December 1985; yes, Trancers is a Christmas movie.
Leena: Did I give you my phone number?
Leena: Oh, thank God.
Jack hooks up with punk department store elf Leena (Helen Hunt, who was a good enough sport to return for two of the sequels, the second after her career had taken off with Mad About You). She’s a one-night stand of Phil’s – in a running gag, Jack experiences coitus interruptus, missing out on the full meal whenever things are getting, or have gotten, intimate – and is initially reluctant to help Jack out. It’s easy to see why Hunt was loyal – at least, on the evidence of the first movie – as Leena’s far from an undiluted girlfriend in peril, apportioned some consistently great lines and merrily taking the piss out of Jack (“I’ll kill you, and your bitchin’ girlfriend” she recites from a fortune cookie, suggesting it’s a message from Whistler).
Department Store Kid: Hey mom, he shot Santa Claus.
Rightly revered is the Father Christmas (Peter Schrum) scene – Alex Cox called it “fantastic” – in which a mall Santa is revealed as a Trancer and Jack must summarily deal with him; Christmas as a backdrop to action movies starts here, not with Shane Black. Further festive-flavoured scenes include a wind-up toy Christmas present Leena gives Jack and a visit to a club where The Buttheads launch into a decidedly aggressive rendition of Jingle Bells (Jack also flattens an ex of Leena).
McNulty: The kid’s the only ancestor I could find. It’s been hell. I had to sneak past her parents and everything.
There’s obviously some culture clash for Jack (this is pre-Back to the Future too). There are some neat gimmicks (the “long second” wristwatch, enabling Jack to elude Whistler’s hit squad and later save Leena from a fall). And there’s also the arrival in 1985 of Jack’s boss McNulty (Art LaFleur, perhaps best known as the Tooth Fairy in The Santa Clauses), humorously forced to occupy the body of a young girl. Luckily for laughs – “Put me down. I’ll bust you to zero, trooper!” – rather than the ramifications of a middle-aged man occupying a young girl’s body. We’ve all seen Big and know how inappropriate that kind of thing can be.
Trancers admittedly falls into an extended chase in and around some derelict buildings towards the end, as Jack and Leena attempt to protect drunk ex-ball player Hap Ashby (Biff Manard) from Whistler. Nevertheless, Band makes sure the proceedings don’t hang about, delivering Trancers with unrefined but appealing zip (it’s only 76 minutes long). Jack finally chooses to stay in the twentieth century in order to dispose of Whistler permanently and save the criminal’s decent ancestor (Wiki suggests Whistler is condemned to “an eternity without a body to return to” but I must have missed that line).
Deth: If I see you in LA again, I don’t care if you’re a kid, an old lady or a kitty cat, I’m going to kick your ass.
I first caught Trancers on BBC2’s Moviedrome in August 1989. Alex Cox was of the view that “its grasp is longer than its reach” (which could describe a number of his movies) and opined it was also “much too clean” (he’s not thinking of Hap, presumably). He was most impressed by the locations, specifically the industrial wasteland south of LA: “a cross between the 1920s and a post-apocalyptic landscape”. Trancers is decidedly unsentimental festive fare, but brimming with personality.