Trancers is one of those movies a large body of people are aware of but few have actually seen. Most might recall one of the series sitting on the bottom shelf or a poster at the far end of a video library in the late 80’s or early 90’s. This boils down to a movie that is a notorious, low budget, Terminator cash-in yet on the other hand gained a handsome, loyal cult following and five and a half sequels. Those who dismiss it as tat are squids!
A cop from the future, Jack Deth, has been on the trail of Martin Whistler, a criminal mastermind who uses psychic powers to turn people into zombie-like creatures known as Trancers. Whistler escapes from 2247 to 1985 using ancestral bloodline time travel and takes over the body of an ancestor. Jack pursues, using the same strange method, and takes over his great, great, great grandson, a journalist named Phil Dethton. The two continue their chase in 1985.
Trancers contains a fairly beefy plot, shows some depth when it comes to character development and a rather hip approach (for its time.) It has a go at trying to create a cultural vibe with a few social references, like “squids,” a term I used earlier meaning uncool people. Combined with a cast of likeable actors who recognise and can work with those influences gives this a fighting chance.
Tim Thomerson serves up another impossibly tough hero. Combining James Cagney’s style with Clint Eastwood’s cool, Jack Deth is a very agreeable hero if initially somewhat unlikable. A pre-stardom Helen Hunt gives a typically screamy dame of a sidekick more layers than what the writing might have required. Thomerson and Hunt are, oddly, very well matched. They have some fun scenes together, and with Hunt, it’s always cool to see a future Oscar winner having some real fun on screen.
There are some pretty clever ideas, including a great gadget, the Long Second watch, push the button and it turns 1 second into 10 for the wearer. Rumoured to be in the upcoming Apple Watch.
The ambition on display here is hardly hindered by the limited budget. Sure, the glimpse we have of the future is far from the jaw dropping imagery from Blade Runner, the special effects and make-up look pretty ghastly today and the editing of some of the action sequences could have been a lot tighter. However, everything else seems to work, and works well. The rough edges are really to be expected as the script is full of seemingly impossible ideas for a cheap direct-to-video film. This is the most important thing to remember, before the direct-to-video market exploded, Charles Band was proving that something cheap and tacky didn’t have to suck and this type of movie could be profitable.
I count this as the granddaddy of direct-to-video movement and a mostly successful opening to the franchise. Time has not been kind to it, however, with the upcoming 4K remaster I’m hoping the film will find a new audience.
Poster art for Trancers is fantastic. The film retained its working title of Future Cop in Australia, France and The Philippines.