Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Lego Minifigures -- Space Miner (Series 12)

Series 12 of the Minifigures has brought us the Space Miner – the latest addition to the once-massive Lego Space theme – and he looks pretty darn cool!
The tampoing on the main body is surprisingly intricate, especially considering most of it will go completely unseen for most of the time. A blank chest would have been absolutely fine, but this has instead been decorated with a chest harness, a zip and lots of little fabric crease marks. It’s nice attention to detail, and means you can display him fully suited up or in his civvies.   


The chestpiece is one we’ve seen a few times now, both in and outside of the Minifigures theme – It’s a nice generic “spacey” piece that works well in many different colourways. This one’s distinguishing feature is that it has a modified Space logo on the left shoulderpad, with the rocket replaced by a drill.

He's got one new piece – a helmet. It’s much more industrial in its look, rather than the military/police look of the Galaxy Patrol guy from series 7. Thanks to a surprising number of paint apps, it even features a light above the eyes, just like a “real” miner’s helmet would. I suspect we’ll see a lot of this piece in future Space sets too, and I'll be quite happy with that.

The drill is made up of two different pieces; the ray gun, which is endemic to just about every Space-related figure that has appeared in this series, and a drillbit. The drillbit is an awesome idea but it doesn’t fit quite as well as it should, and it’s also cast in soft plastic. Understandable, given that this is a kid’s toy, but BACK IN MY DAY (warning: old codger story imminent) all of our plastics were cast as solids, and no-one worried to much about things like eyes getting poked out etc.

Perhaps the Space Miner’s greatest strength is that he’s a good army builder. Though the default face is perfectly fine, swap in another face and you’ve instantly got a whole new figure. He’s definitely one of the coolest figures in the new series, and will fit in nicely as a supplement to many Space sets as a background character. This guy comes highly recommended -- I only have the one at the moment, but could see myself picking up several in the near future.

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Garruk Wildspeaker (Magic: The Gathering Funko POP!)

Many moons ago, I played quite a bit of Magic: The Gathering. For those who’ve never played it, it’s essentially a card game designed to appeal to the Dungeons and Dragons crowd. Fantasy creatures, wizardry and epic battles, all played out in card form. Running continuously since 1993, it’s been through numerous iterations and has near-bankrupted many a gamer with its regular release schedule – and as might be expected of a fantasy-based game, it’s generated a huge amount of lore and backstory.
Key to this lore are “Planeswalkers” – incredibly powerful wizards/beings who can move between different universes (or “planes” as they’re known in the game). Garruk here is one of these characters, and was originally aligned as a Green character, though apparently more recent events have seen him becoming corrupted and now he’s a Black-Green character, which is how this POP depicts him.

However, I can’t pretend to know a great deal about him. I am years upon years behind in the lore, and have no real interest in catching up these days. So I bought Garruk mainly as a generic fantasy guy, to serve as a fighter/barbarian style character – one who could be either a villain, or a hero. Bear in mind that he will be assessed as such.  

One of the main drawcards (ha!) of Magic: The Gathering is the often excellent artwork. Though it draws heavily from standard fantasy sources like Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons, since the early days it has been quite effective at putting its own subtle touches in to create a somewhat darker universe than might be expected.

But I think the game really began to find its own style around the time of the Urza series. It’s changed and evolved since then, of course, but to my amateur eye that’s when things really changed. Garruk is a prime example of this shift; he looks like he could have stepped out of any series between about 1999 and the present, possibly drawn by Kev Walker or Brom (though his first card was actually drawn by Aleksi Briclot). Naturally, this design approach will affect your enjoyment of the final product greatly.
While my own fantasy art tastes lean more towards Frank Frazetta or Michael Whelan, every now and then something from the modern era will really click with me -- Garruk here is one such example. He’s got lots of little details sculpted onto him; different layers of cloth, with bits of armour dotted around the place. In practical terms, this is accomplished by his body being split into two pieces at the waist. His cape/shawl is also a separate piece, and his tabard appears to be glued on separately too. When looked at closely, it’s not quite in line with the more simplistic aesthetic of earlier Funko POPs, but it’s executed nicely nonetheless.       

If you’ve read any of my previous Funko reviews (or bought any yourself for that matter), you will know that paint is regularly underwhelming for these guys. Well, what do you know – Garruk bucks that trend! He’s not perfect, but there has been a huge improvement in the paintwork, even since last year. I’m exceptionally pleased about this and hope that Funko continue the trend.

Garruk is somewhat out of place in my superhero-dominated POP collection, but he’s a fun addition nonetheless. The other Magic: The Gathering POPs are not really my cup of tea, but they have already announced a second series, and future additions to the line may yet grab me. And I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t take much to turn Garruk into a Dragonborn from Skyrim, either…

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Raph the Barbarian (LARP TMNT)

Series: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Company: Playmates
Year: 2014

I love Dungeons and Dragons, and a number of other associated pen-and-paper roleplaying games. So earlier this year when I found out that the Playmates TMNT line was going to do a “Raph the Barbarian” figure and other, similarly-themed Turtles, I was over the moon. My love of Dungeons and Dragons, combined with my love of fiction of Robert E. Howard and the Turtles meant that Playmates were onto a guaranteed winner.

Except in Donnie’s case, the result was less than stellar. Mikey was not all that hard for me to skip – though he’s growing on me – and I haven’t come across Leo in the wild as yet. But Raph was always going to be an essential purchase. I was thrilled to find him, but definitely had some trepidation as I picked him up. How did he compare?   

This figure is apparently based on an episode of the current series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which they play a game called “Mazes & Mutants” – however, the game rapidly becomes real and our reptilian heroes need to don some LARP gear to battle evil. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m keen to, particularly after the awesome DnD-themed episodes of Community that have seen release in the last couple of years.

(Fun fact: the TMNT themselves used to have a pen-and-paper RPG too!)
As with Donnie, I initially expected Raph the Barbarian to essentially be a Raphael figure with some soft plastic overlays – the tunic, the furry shinpads and the furry gauntlets, specifically. But as with Donnie, the main body actually is the furry tunic, and the forearms and lower legs are all new pieces (possibly retooled), so any thoughts of getting a two-in-one figure quickly went out the window. But that doesn’t matter, because he looks fantastic!

Looking at him side by side the original figure Playmates did in 2012, it’s clear that Raph is now a little taller, and they have made a number of other changes to make him look much more like his animation model. His face is sculpted with a barbarian-appropriate snarl, though it also would have worked for pretty much any Raphael figure ever. The fur is well-detailed, and there’s lots of little details like chains and spikes dotted about the place (though some are a bit obscured by the paint; more on that later).
Here’s the articulation breakdown:   

*swivel neck

*swivel-hinged elbows
*swivel-hinged elbows
*swivel wrists
*swivel-hinged hips

*swivel-hinged knees

Though it would have been nice to get a ball-jointed neck, I’m glad to trade it for the elbows. This was a cut they shouldn’t have made on Donnie, and Raph is all the better for having them. The hip joints are a little looser than they should be, but aside from that everything works very well.

Raph comes with two accessories – a battle-axe and a barbarian helmet. It’s not a lot, but it’s all he needs. The helmet stays in place really well, and with a little careful manoeuvring you can get him to hold the axe with both hands, which makes for a much better barbarian pose.

Paint is not great, but it’s still one of the better paint jobs in the line. Less apps have been cut between the prototype and the finished product, and those that have gone aren’t especially noticeable. Some of the details are a little obscured by being painted straight black, such as the spikes and chains, but the most irritating thing is that of the two exposed sections of his shell, one has been left completely unpainted. Casey Jones had similar problems, and though I can appreciate cost vs profit margins, it does look a little lazy.  

Basically, he needs to be fixed in a few areas – but if I don’t get around it, it won’t bother me as much as it will with Donnie.  

Much to my relief, Raph turned out much better than Donnie. As tributes to Conan go, it’s a fun one – and the back of the packaging specifically describes him as a “Dwarf Barbarian”, so it’s a fun tribute to Gilius Thunderhead of Golden Axe fame too. After being prepared to be disappointed, I’m pleased to say that Raph is one of the best figures in the line. Highly recommended to Turtles and Conan fans alike.  

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Lego Minifigures – Dino Tracker (Series 12)

When I first saw the Dino Tracker, I was pretty underwhelmed. A Dino Tracker with no dinosaur? I was calling shenanigans. But then some closer study revealed something else – this is actually Lara Croft! Not this iteration of the character – but this one.

So on this basis, the figure became much more enjoyable. She comes with a compound bow (presumably reused from Hawkeye) and a green syringe, which I assume is filled with dino knockout juice, though it could easily work with the scientist from the Research Institute or the Mad Scientist from Minifigures series 4. Several others are printed on the bandolier across her chest, too.
Particularly cool is the printed cargo pockets on the side of the legs -- very few minifigures have printing there, and it's always good to see Lego experimenting with tampo techniques.  
The hairpiece is apparently new; it’s a high ponytail piece, cast in brown. I daresay we’ll see it about quite a bit, as it’s generic enough to work with most female characters.    

She doesn’t really fit in with my wider collection, but I did really enjoy last year’s reboot of Tomb Raider, so it’s cool to have a (not) Lara Croft. Lego has been making some concerted efforts to produce more strong female characters of late, which I think is an excellent thing. Given that she’s technically a Dino Tracker, it would have been cool to get a baby T-Rex or something like that, but such is the nature of cost vs profit. Sigh…I might have to add some Dino stuff to the collection now…

Monday, 20 October 2014

Donnie the Wizard (LARP TMNT)

Series: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Company: Playmates

Year: 2014

I love Dungeons and Dragons, and a number of other associated pen-and-paper roleplaying games. So earlier this year when I found out that the Playmates TMNT line was going to do a “Raph the Barbarian” figure and other, similarly-themed Turtles, I was over the moon. My love of Dungeons and Dragons, combined with my love of the Turtles meant that Playmates were onto a surefire winner.

Now I have the first of these figures in my hands – Donnie the Wizard. How does he match up to the expectations? Well, he’s pretty cool idea, but there are definitely some problems here. Read on to see more.


This figure is apparently based on an episode of the current series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which they play a game called “Mazes & Mutants” (wink, wink) – however, the game rapidly becomes real and our reptilian heroes need to don some LARP gear to battle evil. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m keen to, particularly after the awesome DnD-themed episodes of Community that have seen release in the last couple of years.

(Fun fact: the TMNT themselves used to have a pen-and-paper RPG too!)

Somewhat surprisingly, this isn’t just a regular Donnie with soft plastics layered over the top to create a robe – rather, most of the body actually is the robe, with arms, legs and head stuck in. This is a decision I have mixed feelings about; though the robe is nicely detailed with a belt and hood, it makes him look kind of pudgy, rather than the gangly Ninja Turtle the current series shows him to be.
Here’s the articulation breakdown.   

*ball-jointed neck (inexplicably cast in purple)
*swivel-hinged elbows

*cut wrists
*swivel-hinged hips

*swivel-hinged knees

Given that the cape is made of hard plastic and actually forms most of the body, rather than being a soft plastic overlay, leg articulation is more restricted than many would like – and the knees are kind of on the loose side. But for me, the main problem is that there are no elbows – though both are preferable, I always take elbows over knees. This is further compounded by the right arm also being quite wonky.   

Donnie comes with two accessories – his bo staff, which looks to have been turned into a wizard’s staff via the judicious application of bandages and tape, and his wizard’s hat and beard. Both are cast in soft plastic, so you may experience some warping, particularly on the staff.

As for the hat/beard combo, it stays on reasonably well, but you won’t be able to turn his head while he’s wearing it.   

Paint has far and away been the weakest aspect of the current TMNT line, and this Donnie is unfortunately no exception. Though the prototype looked quite good, a considerable number of apps have been removed from the final product – most notably the stars that decorate his cape. They’re still sculpted details, but now they just look kind of awkward. This is one issue I think I will actually take the time to fix, as it’s a real shame to see it  almost ruined because of lax paintwork.    

Donnie the Wizard is a great concept, an excellent novelty addition to the TMNT collection, and a nice throwback to the more bizarre days of the 1980s/1990s line (I’m holding out for an updated Universal Monsters series, unlikely as it may be). However, the execution is sorely lacking, with some questionable sculptural choices, minimal paint, and loose joints. I was excited on initial purchase, but in practice it's quite underwhelming. I’m just hoping Raph the Barbarian is a better figure.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Lego Minifigures -- The Wizard (series 12)

So here we have my first figure from the just-released (in Australia) Minifigures Series 12 – the Wizard!  

If you’d asked most people of the last few generations to draw a wizard, I think odds are strong that they would have drawn something just like this – a guy with a long grey beard, a blue or purple robe and a conical hat, all decorated with stars and crescent moons. This popular image has probably been altered a bit by the success of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, but still lingers nonetheless. I don’t know where this image originated, but I would venture a guess that the stars and moons were derived from astrological imagery. But if anyone can fill me in on with more specific information, I’d much appreciate it. 
He comes with one accessory – a staff, made up of three separate pieces – a spyglass, a rod piece and a blue gem. The combination of the pieces works really well to provide the effect of some kind of arcane artefact, no doubt passed down over many generations of wizards.  
As befits his wizardly status, he’s also got a purple cape, made up of two separate pieces to create the raised collar. This cape is cool, but also my main complaint about the figure too – metallic print is notoriously fragile, and I can see it wearing off. I think Lego might have been better simply leaving it plain.

Lego has released quite a number of wizards over the years, primarily through its various iterations of Castle and more recently through Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings sets too. But they haven’t previously done one like this – the archetypal wizard. With the exception of the print on the cape, I’m really happy with this figure -- it was my big "get" from this series. In fact, Series 12 is looking great as a whole. It's the first series I've wanted all the characters from in quite a while. Look for more reviews to come soon!

Friday, 3 October 2014

DC Universe Classics Wonder Woman

LINE: DC Universe Classics
YEAR: 2008


Earlier this year, Mattel announced that it was re-releasing several of its DC figures in Super Powers- themed colours and packaging – a tribute to Kenner’s seminal 1980s toyline. Though I didn’t have the Super Powers line as a kid, the announcement pushed my nostalgia button firmly – especially with the Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez-inspired artwork! If it looks familiar, that’s not surprising – DC is currently using his work on quite a lot of merchandise. 

I wasn’t interested in the Riddler, Gold Superman, Mr Mxyzptlk or the Collect-and-Connect Kalibak, but the core trio of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman rapidly became must-have items. It’s not hard to find figures of these core three, but it’s hard to find three that look cohesive together – well, ones that aren’t based on the New 52, anyway. But as the release date started to grow closer approach I began to wonder whether I could justify the not inconsiderable price tag.
“Hmm…the packaging does look nice, but it’s going in the bin anyway…this kind of blue Batman isn’t really my favourite style of Batman…Wonder Woman isn’t going to include her axe and shield…”

Deliberations such as these went on for a few weeks, but I eventually decided I’d be better off looking up earlier releases of these figures, and comparing costs. If older versions were cheaper, I’d go with them instead.
Wonder Woman was the first of DC big three that I managed to track down. This wasn’t surprising in one way; though she’s well recognised and quite popular in her own right, but she’s never quite managed to reach Superman or Batman levels of fame, so it’s not so surprising that there might be stock still lying around. And of course, we all know that “female action figures don’t sell"... I can appreciate that boys don't want to play with this, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, I would argue that this isn't the same thing.  

But before we go on, I should probably disclose that I’m not certain whether this figure is a legitimate Mattel release or a bootleg. I ordered her off eBay as a new figure, as part of my search for figures of DCUC’s “Big Three” and came across a seller who seemed to have a bunch still in stock – not the very original one from 2008, but the 2009 “World’s Greatest Superhero” re-release. When it arrived a couple of weeks later, the printing on the backer card and printed inserts seemed a little…cheap…but I’m not sure whether that was a regional thing or a case of fraud. Suffice to say, I plan to be a little more cautious in my dealings in future. 

If she is a fake, she seems to have been pretty well done. Comparing her with other reviews online, it seems about right bar one or two things with the paint, which I’ll touch on later – though even these could be explained by the fact that it is meant to be a later release.  

If I was to point out an artist for comparison, it would be George Per├ęz or Brian Bolland, though I don’t think either of them is entirely correct. However, it matches well with Superman, and the overall look that the Four Horsemen created for the line. Her face is sculpted in a neutral expression, which kind of makes her look like an older Jennifer Lawrence, though given this was sculpted before her rise to fame it seems unlikely she was the model. There’s probably a bit of Lynda Carter in there too, which has been standard in pretty much any depiction of the character since 1975. Like Superman, her face is quite flat, so it looks good from certain angles, but slightly odd from others.  
The broad details of the costume could have come anywhere from between the 1970s to around 2011. The trunks are high-cut in a modern style (this is actually a good sculptural decision, by the way. If they’d tried to stick more closely to an older look, the results would have been mixed it at best), but otherwise it’s just a good iconic representation of the character, pre New-52.   

The shoulders are a little too narrow, making her thighs look a little too large in proportion with the rest of her. I don’t like John Byrne’s take on her a great deal, but this is an occasion where the broader-shouldered look might have been a good idea.  
She’s a lot skinnier than her male counterparts, which is to be expected, but this seems to have contributed to one of her legs (the left) being a little warped in the package. Fortunately it seems to have mostly straightened itself out since, though it may still need a bit of a going over with the hairdryer.

Articulation is as follows:
*ball-jointed neck

*swivel-hinged shoulders
*swivel-hinged biceps

*hinged elbows
*cut wrists

*ab crunch
*cut waist

*swivel-hinged hips

*cut thighs
*hinged knees

*hinged ankles
Pretty standard for the line, really, and I believe it was the best-articulated figure she'd had at the time. The neck is quite restricted due to her long hair, and her waist is too, due to her girdle. Her swivel biceps are also quite small and thin, so it’s quite tricky to get them to move. Be gentle; you don’t want them to break. But for the most part her articulation works wel, bar a stuck right knee -- but some freezer time should fix that.

Wonder Woman comes with two accessories – a shield and an axe. The axe resembles an eagle flaring its wings, and not coincidentally, a “W”. The axe is particularly cool, but has been cast in really soft plastic and as a result it’s a little warped. I don't remember her having these weapons specifically in the comics, but they fit well with her Amazon Warrior status.

She also comes with a transparent blue stand, to help her stay standing up. It’s emblazoned with the DC Universe logo.

This is an area that could have used some work – the swivel discs in her shoulders are cast in a greyish plastic, which has then been painted over with a skin-coloured paint – this was already torn in the box. It would have been preferable not to paint it at all, though it’s easily scraped off.

There’s some slop around the place – her tiara’s star is a little off, as are her earrings, and there’s some red slop on her chest. The “W” golden logo on her chestpiece also hasn’t been painted to the edges. The blue overspray on the hair worked well on Superman, but here it just looks poorly done.
On the upside, her facial details and the stars on her trunks have been cleanly tampoed. But it's very average paintwork on the whole, which is part of what makes me think it may have been bootlegged.   

This figure isn’t terribly hard to track down, but she is going at a bit of a premium, being a number of years old now. There are two versions of her: the original, which included part of a “Collect and Connect” figure (Despero), and the “World’s Greatest Superhero” reissue covered here today, which is exactly the same figure but doesn’t have the Collect and Connect piece.   

I’m a big Wonder Woman fan, but I was left with mixed feelings after opening the packaging. As one of the flagship characters in the DC Universe and the second female released in the series (after Harley Quinn), she really should have been standard-setting. Instead, she’s simply adequate, but not spectacular. I’m glad I was able to get her, but also glad I didn’t pay the premium for the Super Powers version.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

American Ninja 2: The Confrontation

Starring: Michael Dudikoff
Director: Sam Firstenberg

Year: 1987
Studio: Cannon

The 1980s were a high watermark for the action genre. Films such as First Blood, The Terminator and Bloodsport were setting box offices alight the world over, making stars of their leading men and setting standards for film that many would argue have never been bettered. Well, some of us might argue that, anway…  

But for every Predator, there were plenty of others that didn’t quite live up to the same grade. Some of these were financial hits in their time, but never made it out of the 80s. Every era of film suffers this in some respect, and I think it can generally be put down to a similar variety of reasons – poor critical reception, poor handling of the franchise, studios shutting down, disputes over copyright and as a result films getting lost during changing media formats (e.g. Betamax to VHS, VHS to DVD, etc).
Sometimes, it’s because the film was just the product of a short-lived craze. In the 1980s, ninja films were seemingly everywhere, but very few are readily available today. The American Ninja series are one such example of this fad. They obviously made their studio money – one can only assume that they wouldn’t have made four of them otherwise – but they have not entered the canon of classic action films in the same way that many of their contemporaries have. So, how has time treated the second instalment? The short answer is “not well”, but read on for a more detailed synopsis if you’re so inclined.  

On a remote Caribbean island, US Marines are going missing from their base. But they’re not being murdered or anything so mundane. They’ve been kidnapped, but why? Michael Dudikoff (the titular American Ninja) and his companion (Steve James) are sent in to investigate.

It quickly becomes apparent that one of the Marines is selling his companions out to this ninja organisation. The reasons behind his betrayal are fairly straightforward – they have his wife and are threatening to kill her – but things quickly become unnecessarily complicated.
Ninja "Magic" Part 1
It seems that on a nearby private island, a drug lord calling himself “The Lion” has established his base. He is kidnapping soldiers to turn them into genetically engineered ninjas to serve as enforcers for his drug empire. Naturally, there’s a little more to complicate matters than this; the main love interest’s father is working for the criminal organisation against his will, for instance. All the individual elements are pretty standard, but when viewed as a whole, they don’t make a lot of sense from a plot perspective.  
Ninja "Magic" Part 2
Rarely is this more evident than the scene in which The Lion showcases his army of ninja warriors to a group of prospective buyers. Bizarrely, he summons in his ninja commander – a guy who is presented as pretty badass earlier in the film – who then proceeds to cut his way through the entire room of genetically enhanced ninjas. Maybe I’ve missed something here, but somehow that seems like The Lion just threw away millions of dollars to demonstrate the inefficiency of his ninja army. Yet the buyers are impressed to a man.
On the more positive side, Michael Dudikoff was presumably cast for his martial arts skills rather than his acting ability, but I think he actually has a reasonable amount of charisma, particularly once he’s donned the ninja suit. Steve James, his sidekick, is also quite entertaining. And there are a few good stunts – such as the ninja who cops a shuriken to the head, and the ninja who gets set on fire. Additionally, the scene with a ninja being dragged along behind the car is quite impressive, particularly given the budgetary limitations they seem to have been working with.  
There are many good and entertaining elements in American Ninja 2, fighting to get out – namely, some potentially memorable villains and some good martial arts scenes (you can view the final swordfight here – it’s kind of cool). But they’re hampered by questionable dialogue, poor direction, average pacing and a general lack of focus. Bad humour, impenetrable scenes that drag on for too long and an overall lack of money all bring it down.

Although many films do get “lost” through the decades for whatever reasons, the good news is that many of them do eventually resurface in some form. Granted, it’s often in obscure bargain bins that are not easy to find, but sometimes that’s part of the fun. I still remember stumbling across the legendary Mazes and Monsters as a two-in-one feature, packaged with Loose Shoes, an early and obscure Bill Murray film – all for the extravagant price of $2! Mazes and Monsters paid for itself many times over in the following years.

I found this DVD in the bargain bin in a service station for $6. Who visits a service station looking for a movie at all, let alone American Ninja 2? But, as I’ve said before, God will sometimes send you a pick-me-up in the most obscure form.

I first came across the first American Ninja in 2008, at a local video store (remember them?). It had been a bad few months for me. I had been through a bad break-up, work was a bit of a mess and I was drinking heavily at any chance I got. So a friend suggested that we have a movie night to cheer me up and I took him up on the offer. Likely already half-tanked for the evening, I picked American Ninja, fully aware that I would probably enjoy it (or at least find it hilarious) and he would hate it. Surely enough, it didn’t disappoint. It’s an entertaining film, but quite a bizarre one – a product of 1980s fads and low budget. We shall hopefully see its like again.

While the first was nothing to write home about from a truly objective perspective, even if entertaining, American Ninja 2 failed to meet those expectations. As a result, I don’t recommend this film – even taken on a “for laughs” basis, it’s pretty lacklustre. But would I support a remake that was going to be done properly? Absolutely!