The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Flash Gordon’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Flash Gordon.”

The info:

The Movie: “Flash Gordon” (1980)

Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow

Director: Mike Hodges

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A football player and his friends travel to the planet Mongo and find themselves fighting the tyranny of Ming the Merciless to save Earth

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 82 percent

Our take:

Brown: In our last JOE-DOWN, we dealt with one of the darker comic book characters out there in “The Punisher.” But this time, I felt it appropriate to deal with one of the first comic book movies in “Flash Gordon.” The savior of the universe, the miracle, the king of the impossible. The man with a mighty hand who’ll save every man, every woman and every child with a mighty Flash (at least how Queen puts it in the opening theme. More on this soundtrack later).

Surely, Froemming, you think “Flash Gordon” is for every one of us.

Froemming: When I was watching this movie, I imagined this was what Stephanie Tanner was seeing during her drug-fueled trip at Coachella in “Fuller House.”

But hey, my first impression of the film, according to my notes, was this: You know that’s Flash. It says so in giant red letters on his shirt. That was my start to this film.

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Brown: The start of the movie for me was an injured neck from headbanging to Queen’s intro, which shows off some of the old drawings from the comic.

And in the intro, we hear a dialogue from our antagonist, Ming the Merciless, who observes Earth through a scope that has about as bad of graphics as an Atari game. He’s bored, so he decides to destroy Earth. Well, not right away… he likes to play with things before he obliterates a planet, so we see him creating natural disasters. And it only gets better from here.

Froemming: OK, there are some things I love about the film right off the bat. One, like you said, the Queen soundtrack. Two, in a world after “Star Wars,” people still made science fiction films like the original “Star Trek” series: Campy, cheap and way over the top in colors.

Now, after Ming’s monologue, we are introduced to Flash (again, I know this because of the bright red letters on his ringer T-shirt) and a travel agent named Dale Arden. The other two people (in a different scene) are a mad doctor named Hans Zarkov, who is trying to get his co-worker into a spaceship — at gunpoint. And he doesn’t understand why the man runs away from him. Why this wasn’t riffed by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is beyond me.

Brown: Because MST3k only does bad movies, and this is an amazing movie, obviously.

Though, I must say I’m confused as to how Zarkov was able to build a spaceship out in the desert by himself. We find out he’s a former NASA scientist and he determines that Earth is, indeed, under attack. My question is, how can Zarkov obtain the material needed to make a ship and build it himself when countries around the world can’t obtain any sort of rocket-making material without raising a stink from the United Nations or the United States. I guess this was before the Patriot Act…

Froemming: Well, the whole science in this movie is insane. I mean, the moon is knocked out of orbit, which would probably mean certain death upon everything on Earth fairly quickly. So Zarkov’s building a spaceship in the desert I took with a grain of salt. Also, though I have never heard of “Hot Hail,” I am now convinced that was a missed opportunity for an 80s hair metal band to name themselves.

Brown: Because of all these strange occurrences on Earth, the plane Flash and Dale are flying in crashes into Zarkov’s lab (which should have killed them) and Zarkov tricks the two into his spaceship. And they fly into a combination of the “Willy Wonka” tunnel and the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey” with all the flashing lights, to the planet Mongo. And while it looks a tad dated, Mongo is amazing to look at. I love the art in this movie with the over-the-top backgrounds and the bright colors. I’m so used to dreary Batman sets that seeing the full spectrum of colors really stands out. It’s like looking at a bunch of 70s and 80s heavy-metal album covers.

Froemming: Before I touch on that, I want to jump back to one tiny thing before all Day-Glo hell breaks loose. Flash just jumps onto an airplane, because he was stalking Dale from the night before, when he saw her at the hotel. That, in retrospect, was very creepy.

But yeah, they head into the technicolor vortex, bringing them to Mongo. And the bright colors really work for this film.

Brown: Look, when Flash Gordon, quarterback of the New York Jets, wants a woman, he can just hop onto planes and woo her. And man, they fall in love instantly. Not to jump too far ahead, but they talk about telling this all to their kids one day. Hey guys, you’ve known each other for like four hours. Like, get dinner or something before you start talking about little Flash babies.

Froemming: I had no idea Flash was a football player until about a half-hour into this film.

Brown: Yeah, the pilots mention he’s a football player at the beginning, when Flash is on the cover of People magazine. And because I nitpick, Flash is listening to a football game on the radio before he hops on the plane. Like, shouldn’t Flash be at work, leading the Jets to mediocrity?

To try and move this forward, Flash, Dale and Zarkov are led to Ming’s palace, where different groups of Mongo are there to pay tribute to the dictator and his clearly-Nazi army.

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Froemming: I’m just going to go ahead and get this out of the way: Mongo, Ming and so forth are steeped in incredibly racist stereotypes. There, that’s done. Let’s continue.

Brown: I did write in my notes: Why is Mickey Rooney reprising his role from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” Oh wait, that’s Max von Sydow. Yeah… Ming’s a little racist. The rest of Mongo, to me, just throws out all the Nazi stuff that it can. Even to the point when, and I’m jumping ahead again, they are wiping out Zarkov’s brain and they see images of Hitler in his mind. And Klytus, Ming’s right-hand man, head of Ming’s secret police (more Nazism!) and Dr. Doom lookalike, mentions “He (Hitler) shows promise.”

Froemming: Klytus was the bastard child of Destro from “G.I. Joe” and Skeletor from “He-Man.”

Anyway, they are captured at Ming’s palace, and Flash decides to be brave and fight these evil bastards — but he is not a very good fighter. Until someone throws a ball at him, and he goes into some sort of Hulk Hogan-like spasm that gives him super strength, and is suddenly kicking ass.

Brown: OK, this fight scene is amazing for a couple reasons. Flash’s fighting is ridiculous, from using a metal football to doing a random roll to trip up Ming’s soldiers, which look like Power Rangers but fight like Putties. All the while, Dale is on the sidelines cheering Flash on in her Tony Montana power suit. We also get some comic beats from Prince Vultan, the leader of the Hawkmen (and someone we’ll touch a lot upon shortly). Then it just abruptly ends when Flash takes a metal football to the skull.

And, of course, Queen makes it even more awesome.

Froemming: And for this transgression, Flash is sentenced to death and Dale is forced into a concubine. Except, Flash doesn’t die! He is rescued by Timothy Dalton’s girlfriend, and for some reason, he is wearing metal underwear. He looks like Rocky from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Brown: Did you find it as baffling as I did that the casket he was in said “Here lies Flash Gordon” in the same font he had on his T-shirt?

Froemming: Well, to be fair, would I have known that was Flash in any other way?

So Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, has rescued Flash, giving him a new flashy red suit, and is flying him to safety with her jealous boyfriend, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, pre-crappiest James Bond ever) on what looks like the forest moon of Endor in “Return of the Jedi.”

Brown: And while they’re flying to Barin’s planet of Arboria, Aura is dry-humping Flash while he’s trying to fly a spaceship. And while flying through Arboria, I did keep thinking we’d get a cameo from Yoda. After all, George Lucas was heavily influenced by Flash Gordon (the comic) when making “Star Wars.”

Froemming: Well, of course she is. This movie, at times, feels like a late night Cinemax film with all the over-the-top pervy-ness.

So, she drops Flash off on Arboria, and Barin is in the middle of a ritual where people stick their hands in a tree stump and usually die. Because of some scorpion-looking thing in there. It is pretty awesome.

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Brown: Finding out that Flash Gordon is still alive, Klytus gets permission from Ming to hunt the spy in his kingdom, which he correctly assumes is Aura. For her transgressions, she is tortured and Aura now knows how evil her father can be.

And because we have to draw even further from Flash’s plot, we see Dale escape from Ming, find Zarkov (who somehow avoided being completely brainwashed) and they are taken in by the Hawkmen. Dale tries to sell the idea that all the inhabitants of Mongo should join together to usurp Ming. And, we get Vultan’s most famous line: Gordon’s alive?! God, Brian Blessed is so hammy in this role and it’s amazing.

Froemming: Ming just ups and tries to pull a Cosby on Dale by drugging her drink! She, correctly, tricks another slave to drink it. And I cannot describe how creepy it is when Ming shows up in that bedroom.

Vultan is the greatest part of this movie. Man, Blessed was perfect for that role.

So, to move things along, Flash and Barin are up in the heavens with the Hawkmen, and they go into a Mortal Kombat-style fight challenge on a platform, which Vultan controls. Spikes fly up, it is bobbing in all directions, Dalton gets his ass kicked, this scene just had everything.

Brown: Watching Vultan maneuver that platform with a remote control gave me “Urban Cowboy” mechanical bull flashbacks. I thought we were past that movie!

Froemming: And then General Klytus shows up, ruining all the fun Vultan is having, like a prudish narc in elementary school. And Flash does the one thing no one on Mongo has dared to do: Just up and kill Klytus by tossing him on some spikes, which somehow cause his eyes to bug out like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Brown: It’s hilarious that when the bad guys die in this movie, the just up and evaporate like the Wicked Witch of the West.

During the Flash-Barin fight, we find out that the moon is going to crash into Earth, destroying the planet (and now we know where “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” stole its plot from). So now the Mongo-ians (??) unite to try and take down Ming but Flash stays behind. The Hawkmen’s sky castle gets destroyed but Flash conveniently goes down an escape slide that just so happens to have a rocket cycle. Why Hawkmen, who have wings, need a rocket cycle, I won’t ever understand.

But the war is on, and Flash and the Hawkmen start attacking Ajax, Ming’s war rocket.

Froemming: Before he gets on the rocket cycle, Ming and Flash have a heart-to-heart, where Ming wants Flash to be the ruler of Earth, serving under Ming. Flash choses not to take part in that, and thus escapes to the conveniently-placed rocket cycle.

Brown: It’s kind of a heart-to-heart… it’s hard to tell how serious Flash is. I can’t defend it: Sam J. Jones is a terrible actor. There’s a reason he didn’t do much after this. With that said, it kind of fits the mood of the film so it’s not terribly distracting.

But, I’m anxious to talk about the Ajax/Hawkmen fight, so let’s DIVE into it.

With thousands of Hawkmen swarming at Ajax, the heroes eventually take over the ship. And man, between Queen’s epic score, the wonky sci-fi sound effects with the blasters, the trippy red sky in the background, bad bluescreen effects, Brian Blessed going full HAM during the whole thing… the whole fight is just a sensory overload. It’s about five minutes of pure joy. Everything just gets cranked up to an 11 in pure absurdity. Hell, I was laughing during a lot of the scene because when Hawkmen die, they sound like seagulls.

Froemming: It. Is. Amazing. Just so balls-out nuts that it works. And with the return of Zarkov in a rocket ship powered by lava lamps, everything is heading toward Ming and Dale’s shotgun wedding, including a shredding version of “Here Comes The Bride” by Queen!

Brown: Then we get to the climax, and if there is a weak part of this movie, this is it. I’m a stickler and I had to keep track of this. So as Flash flies Ajax toward Ming’s palace for the final showdown, he has a timer that says the Earth has three minutes left before Earth is destroyed. That’s at the 1-hour, 33-minute mark of the movie. Then at 1:38, Earth has 1 minute, 48 seconds left… 1:39, 47 seconds. 1:40, 18 seconds. Time in Mongo is bizarre.

Froemming: Ahem….NERD!

Brown: Flash is resigned to the idea that this will be a suicide mission on Ajax as he’s taking heavy fire from Ming’s guards. But Zarkov and Barin manage to shut down the electric shield over Ming’s castle and the ship crashes right into the altar, impaling Ming in the process… right before Earth is about to be destroyed.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I’m sure if the moon was seconds away from destroying Earth, I think the planet would essentially be destroyed before the moon crashed into Earth. Again, I played “LoZ: Majora’s Mask,” I know how this works.

Froemming:  And Ming decides to off himself. Oh, how the mighty racist caricature has fallen. But they save Earth, which again I believe if the moon was out of orbit, everyone on Earth would already be dead at this point. And the Hawkmen spell out “thanks” in the sky. And Timothy Dalton has no idea that his career will be over in a few short years. Everyone is happy.

Brown: And, Flash Gordon gets a celebratory jump into the fish-eye lens!

But, is it over? We do get the “The End?” as someone picks up the ring that Ming was absorbed into…

Froemming: Yup. It is the end. No sequel was ever made. The closest was in the film “Ted.” I think we have hit every important topic here, let’s jump on our rocket cycles to recommendations.

Would You Recommend?:

Brown: This movie is so campy and fun. “Flash Gordon” is very polarizing, and I’m in the camp that thinks it’s amazing. I mean, the plot begins because Ming is bored. That’s awesome. Not every movie needs to be some dark, brooding “Everything is at stake” romp. This movie has that, but it’s done in such an over-the-top way. Even if you hate the plot or Sam J. Jones’ acting, see it for the visuals and listen to it for its amazing soundtrack.

This. Movie. Is. Awesome. Watch it. Now.

Froemming: I would. It is a fun, cheesy sci-fi flick. It does get boring a lot of the time (it could have been pared down by a half-hour in my opinion), but overall it is one of those films that is fun to kill a few hours watching.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: