Tuesday, April 8, 2014

EXO MAN (1977)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *

Late-night television used to be littered with failed television-pilots, but now almost the only way to view such ephemera is if someone puts it on Youtube.  That's the way I re-watched the 1979 exercise in tedium SAMURAI, and more recently, the marginally better EXO-MAN.

Three years previous to this pilot, Martin Caidin's novel CYBORG had been freely adapted into the popular series THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Seeking to catch lightning again, Caidin came up with a story based in NASA's then-current experiments with "man-amplifier" suits, that imparted to the suit's wearer enormous strength. 

Intriguing though this idea is, everything else in the production is strictly in the grind-it-out mode of television production. THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN isn't high art, but the pilot film for the later series showed some basic understanding as to how to make the character appealing to audiences and to give his heroics some social context.

EXO-MAN's poverty of imagination is shown in the motivating forces that lead protagonist Nicholas Conrad to become an armored superhero. Physics teacher Conrad is first seen imparting the wonders of science to his students; a nice opening scene for actor David Ackroyd. However, Conrad has the misfortune to witness a crime, and he's called upon to testify against the miscreant involved. In the real world the racketeer-boss of said miscreant would just instruct his lawyers to demolish Conrad on the witness stand, but boss Kermit Haas-- a bored-looking Jose Ferrer-- tries to kill Conrad with a car-bomb, and gets one of Conrad's students instead.  Later one of Haas's goons attacks Conrad with a crowbar, but is forced to flee before he finishes the job. Conrad survives as a cripple.  When the crooks attempt to suss out Conrad about his testimony, he conveys the impression that he doesn't intend to testify, so they leave him alone.

But Conrad doesn't plan to leave them alone: building upon the dead student's research, Conrad assembles an exo-skeletal suit in which he can walk, albeit very slowly.  Thus he becomes, in essence, "Exo-Man," though the name is never used in the narrative.  His first order of business is to capture the man who crippled him, allegedly not intending to kill the hood, though by happy accident the fellow ends up dead anyway. The climax finds the bulletproof, super-strong avenger invading Haas' estate and fending off his goons to reach the big boss.

Ackroyd's solid performance is  the only virtue of the film. Other actors-- also including A Martinez, Jack Colvin, and Harry Morgan-- the last as a policeman who may suspect the nature of Conrad's new mission and who seems willing to abet future outings-- are no more than competent. The biggest problem is the suit, since in contrast to the super-speedy Steve Austin, Exo-Man can do no more than lumber about, so that any sensible crook could be miles away before the hero even starts to make a collar. For good measure, in his first outing, Conrad's suit even suffers a "MALFUNTION"-- as the lettering on the suit's control panel calls it-- so that the hero runs out of air. The scene was clearly intended to produce pathos but is more likely to produce groans of disbelief.  As if to fit the awkwardness of the hero, both script and direction show a similar tendency to lumber about and accomplish little.

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