Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Dr. Jones I Presume: JACK HUNTER AND THE LOST TREASURE OF UGARIT (2008)

The SyFy Network has carved a nice niche in cheap, indifferently made TV exploitation movies that pretty much pass us by without even causing a blip on the radar. While sometimes their rip-offs of JAWS rip-offs look appealing, why would I watch something cynically made with bad CG when I can reach into a box and pull out Enzo G. Castellari's THE LAST JAWS (1981) or J.P. Simon's THE RIFT (1990)? Because of this it's no surprise to find that we completely missed this Indiana Jones inspired mini-series. Now, in our exhaustive search for cinematic relics, we don our fedoras and whip out this trilogy.

In a private French museum, a thief in a balaclava and sunglasses (!?) sneaks in and attempts to take a picture of a large cuneiform tablet, but ends up just stealing the damn thing after bumbling that whole "sneaking" thing.

Of course we find out that the thief is Jack Hunter (Ivan Sergei) who is a way too young and way too beardless (no, the stubble thing doesn't count) to be an anthropologist, which I guess is why he was stealing antiquities instead of digging them up. Hunter, back in Los Angeles, takes the tablet to his friend and mentor Professor Schaffer (Sean Lawlor) who needs to switch to decaff and has spent his entire career trying to discover the hiding place of a mythical staff that could be used as a powerful weapon. Never mind the the ancient Syrian civilization was in reality pillaged and burned to the ground by foreign raiders, which begs the question, why didn't they just use their super-staff of badassery to blow up all of the ships before they even landed? Yeah, never mind that, Schaffer is convinced that it is hidden somewhere in the ruins and gets royally pissed off when Jack says that he's going on a trip to Florida and doesn't want to go find something that doesn't exist. That night Schaffer is murdered while deciphering the tablet and creating a map, of course this means one thing! Jack isn't going to Florida.

Stepping off the plane, all gussied up in his snap-brim fedora and regulation khakis, he meets Nadia (Joanne Kelly), half of his liaison with the Syrian antiquities department. As one would expect they immediately clash when Nadia rips into Jack accusing him of being nothing but a glorified thief, which from what we've seen so far is pretty much nail on head. The pair grumpily take off to meet Ali (Muhammed Cangoren), the second, and presumably less temperamental of the pair, but while trying to pick up a scroll that he has left in a shop, Jack and Nadia are attacked and chased all over an open-air market replete with fruit vendors. At one point they even fall right into the middle of a wedding. Apparently watching them destroy the stocked buffet table is supposed to be funny. There is nothing funny about this. If it was me, those two wouldn't have even made it out of the parking lot.

After getting news that Ali has been killed in a car accident, Jack, Nadia and their goof-ball, comic relief driver Tariq (Mario Naim Bassil) head out to the mountains to search for the treasure themselves. Unfortunately there is nothing Jack can possess that Littman cannot take away. Littman (Thure Riefenstein) is a rival archaeologist, and Jack's former mentor, who is so bad that not only does he dress in black, but has henchmen that dress in black and they all drive vehicles that are black. Bad, I tells ya! Additionally, he wants that Ugarit treasure and will kill anyone who gets in his way. Even his own men. He must be bitter about the fact that he looks like Alan Rickman and Packtrick Swayze's long lost love child. Really, it's pretty mesmerizing at times. Additionally, Jack is being tracked by Schaffer's assistant Liz (Susan Ward), who is in fact the head of the NSA who is spending billions of tax payer dollars to monitor the movements of a guy that steals historical relics, while doing absolutely nothing about it.

Along the way, Jack, Nadia and Tariq are chased, ambushed, shot at, kidnapped and have a very nice meal with some random guy who lives in a tent in the middle of the desert with about four, of what appear to be, motherless children. No, that's not creepy at all. Of course in the end they do find the staff and several cheap CG moments including the dreaded CG sandstorm. Honestly, that is pretty much the most groan inducing CG effect you can pull and yet for some reason everybody wants to do it. "You know what this movie needs? A sandstorm!" See? That doesn't even sound good on paper!

I believe that SyFy's target audience is people who are looking for something cheesy to watch on a rainy afternoon and have never seen any of the films that they are cribbing notes from. Not content to lift the premise and some set-pieces from the Indiana Jones films, the writers filch partial bits of dialogue too. In one scene Jack is running hell bent away from several attackers while screaming "start the jeep!" which mimics the scene in the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) where Indy is running away from attackers screaming "start the plane!" Just when you think they are ripping off the tarantula sequence, except here with scorpions, Jack merely flicks them off of his jacket and presses on. I was really expecting to find out where Forrestal cashed in, but I guess that would have been too obvious.

This somewhat lazy aping makes it all the more surprising that the series writers, Steven Jones, Kevin Moore, Michael Palmieri and George Shamieh, actually did a little anthropological homework using the setting of the very real Ugarit city state that dated from about 6000 BC to about 1200 BC. Now known as Ras Shamra, the city was a major coastal trading city, located directly across the Mediterranean from Alashiya (now known a Cypress). It's not too far of a stretch to imagine an ancient relic being hidden somewhere in the area. Well, except for the whole bit where the city gets looted and burned to the ground, but it's a good idea anyway.

The film was actually shot in Turkey for the most part, but the filmmakers go out of their way to paint an extremely nice picture of Syria, complimenting their food, hospitality and stunning landscape. The cynical side of me rolls its eyes at the obvious meddling by local tourism and film boards who want to make sure that the Americans don't portray all Syrians as psychotic baby killers. The less-cynical side of me thinks that it really does in fact look like a great place to visit and it makes the current atrocities in Syria even more gutwrenching. Sorry, I don't have a punchline here, check back with me in about 20 years.

Jack Hunter's first of three adventures doesn't even try to offer anything remotely original, but at the same time it is pretty benign for a modern TV movie. Honestly, considering the source, it should definitely hurt more, but it doesn't (completely) insult the audience's intelligence. If I was a 10 year old kid who never saw any of the Indy movies, I'd think it was mindblowing. Since I'm not a 10 year old kid and I have seen way too many Indy movies legit and rip-offs, it's kind of mildly entertaining. Still, it's better than sitting through INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) which came out the same year. It's like the producers knew that the world needed an Indy fix and whatever they came up with would be better than the real thing.

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