An obscure New Zealand chase film that doesn’t bore.
By Jason Hink
But what does obscure mean, anyway? Is any film truly obscure anymore? As the kid on my block who watched the late-night cable cheapies, forgotten decades-old cheese-fests, and bottom-shelf VHS action flicks with cover art better than the films themselves, I was the de-facto cool kid who had “seen it all,” who my friends would turn to when they had a movie-related question. But then came the internet…and like the baseball cards and comic books from my mid-80s childhood, what seemed rare and “valuable” then had lost all its cachet – no longer were these items rare; a quick search on Ebay generally yields the result you’re looking for, often at a price so cheap you could buy multiples.
And as it turns out, I haven’t seen every film imaginable, I don’t know all there is to know, and I still find films I’ve never heard of, even in my favorite genres (thankfully)! And that’s all thanks to – you guessed it – the internet. Case in point: the 1985 New Zealand car chase adventure romp Shaker Run, starring a grizzled Cliff Robertson, glassy-eyed Leif Garrett, Lisa Harrow and Shane Briant.
On the South Island of New Zealand, Dr. Christine Rubin (New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow) witnesses the accidental discovery of a lethal substance at the research lab where she works. When she senses her local government will use the discovery for ill purposes (of course), she takes matters into her own hands, going into cahoots with another researcher, Michael (Peter Hayden), who may or may not be in love with her, to steal the formula. Michael knows a guy who knows a guy named Barry (Peter Mune), who happens to be a liaison with the United States Central Intelligence Agency. All she and Micheal need to do is steal the formula and deliver it to the CIA agent without getting caught by the ruthless government shadow organization, led by Paul Thoreau (wonderfully evil English actor Shane Briant, Time Traveller, Lady Chatterly’s Lover).
Now, if like me you were a kid in the mid-80s who loved action, adventure, espionage and intrigue, you probably enjoyed the James Bond films of that era (A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final Bond film, came out a few months before Shaker Run debuted in Norway.) They were silly (critics and many adults weren’t fans of those films), but they were big on action, explosions and beautiful women, with a vague international plot wrapped around those audience-grabbing elements. Shaker Run‘s set-up, as described above, sounds a lot like the beginnings of a Bond film. But it’s not the only franchise it evokes.
When Dr. Rubin steals the formula, she needs a way to transport it to the CIA agent, who will then take it to the US, but getting it to him is the hard part. So…enter down-and-out former Daytona race car driver Judd Pierson (Cliff Robertson, Three Days of the Condor, Escape from L.A., the Spider-Man films of the 2000s), whom she by chance encounters cutting her off on the highway while he and his young ride-along mechanic, Casey Lee (former teen heartthrob Leif Garrett, Thunder Alley, Cheerleader Camp, Party Line), tool around New Zealand looking for work in a bright pink muscle car. Having no luck for 18 months while 8,000 miles away from home, with $75 to their name and eating beans out of a can after a promoter stiffed them, Judd and Casey are lucky to keep their pink, windowless 1980 Pontiac Trans-Am race car running. “Sh*t, we’d have been lucky if the whole damn thing had blown up,” quipped Pierson after recounting one of his races that ended in a wreck in ’75.When Dr. Rubin attends a local stunt show that Pierson headlines, she’s impressed with what she sees, and approaches the duo about making the delivery for her, the only stipulation being that they don’t ask any questions (would you really want to know if you had a vial of deadly bio-agent in your trunk?). After agreeing on the price (Pierson tells Casey to haggle, and they settle on $3,000), they set out on their mission, meeting up with the lovely Dr. Rubin to receive the package and taking Rubin along for the ride on the Cloak & Dagger mission. But what have they gotten themselves into? They soon find out.
If the set-up to the mission plays out like the opening of a Bond outing, the folks carrying out the mission – an American race car driver and his young mechanic in a Trans-Am – evoke feelings from another franchise, Smokey and the Bandit. Cliff Robertson struts and grunts throughout the film, wearing a cowboy hat and leather jacket, while affable Leif Garrett is along for the ride (he hates it when Judd drives fast: “I’ll throw up all over the front seat,” Garrett exclaims. “I’ll bring a bag,” Robertson answers.). The movie then shifts into high gear as the good guys in the bright pink ‘bird with “HELLDRIVERS AUTO CIRCUS” splashed along the sides and a Budweiser sponsor logo on the hood try to be as inconspicuous as possible (riiiight), driving at high speeds over some pretty scenic New Zealand countryside while being chased by the evil military police, all to make a delivery while occasionally cracking wise along the way. If that doesn’t sound like Bond meets Bandit, I don’t know what does!
But it makes sense. By summer 1985, car chase films and television shows were on the wane in the United States – Smokey and the Bandit‘s late-70s appeal had long since dissipated, The Dukes of Hazzard ended its run in February ’85, while shows like The Fall Guy, Knight Rider and Riptide would all say goodbye the following year, in 1986. They were expensive (all that real, non-CGI stunt work along with countless destroyed vehicles took a toll on TV and movie budgets; even Bond outings by 1989, with License to Kill, were less about crashing and exploding objects) and some viewers had grown tired of the brainless smash-ups, except for big budget Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis outings, which gave fans of action-adventure enough to tide them over while similar small-screen fare disappeared at home. So how did a movie like Shaker Run even exist in 1985?
I’m no expert, but I bet the small, but growing (at that time), New Zealand film industry was thrilled to produce a film carrying those favorite genre tropes featured in American car movies, and who better to plop into the driver’s seat than an older, on-the-way-down actor like Cliff Robertson, whose look and demeanor could be passed off as a bargain-version Burt Reynolds? Robertson, who would have been around 62 at the time of this film’s release, had by 1975 returned to supporting roles after experiencing great success in the ’60s and early ’70s. By 1985, Robertson was mainly a character actor with his leading-man days behind him…so, how fun must it have been for him to play the lead in an action thriller in his 60s! Leading up to Shaker Run, he played villains in Class and Brainstorm (both in 1983), following it with a turn in the TV biopic Dreams of Gold: The Mel Fisher Story (1986) before, coincidentally, playing a villain in 1987’s Malone, starring none other than Burt Reynolds. Having been the subject of a blacklisting following a scandal at Columbia Pictures in the late 70s, Robertson made it count in his 60s, scoring roles in all these fun genre flicks. It wasn’t until 2002 that a whole new generation of fans would come to know him as the kindly and wise Uncle Ben Parker in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, a long-awaited live-action outing about the popular comic book superhero that scored with fans and critics around the world.
Leif Garrett, around 23 when Shaker Run was released, was still in the midst of a rising career. In 1983, he appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and starred in Thunder Alley in 1985. By this time, Garrett was in the final year of a six-year relationship with TV star Nicolette Sheridan (sooo jealous!), whose star was rising rapidly as a member of the CBS-TV hit Knots Landing.
Produced by Igo Kantor and Larry Parr, Shaker Run director Bruce Morrison (Constance, Queen City Rocker) pulls a lot of neat tricks out of his action-film sleeve. The film begins with Judd Pierson alone at the track in the Firebird attempting a stunt leaping over several vehicles, only to crash into them when the engine experiences problems. The thrill of seeing Pierson attempt the jump as the film’s first scene only adds to the anticipation for the action movie fan (one bugger is that the Trans-Am is right-hand drive, though the film plays as if it’s been American-bred Pierson’s trusty steed for many years). The chases, shootouts and explosions are aplenty, with Morrison never lingering too long on the expository scenes (dig that New Wave female-fronted band in the beer bar they visit – it’s definitely 1985). A particular highlight is a GREAT stunt when Dr. Rubin is watching at the stunt show where, with the Trans-Am somehow emitting real flames from its exhaust, he clears a multi-vehicle jump after blasting through the trailer of a semi-truck. Great show, guys!
The comedic bits aren’t bad either (for the genre and for 1985). In one bit, with the bad guys chasing our heroes, one of the main baddies crashes his vehicle outside the glass windows of a car dealership while the salesman is giving a pitch. Just prior to the crash, the salesman was attempting to sell the customer a Porsche Caprice, but when the bad guy walks in after crashing his own car and demands the Porsche (while pointing a gun at the salesman and demanding the keys), he drives out of the store, crashing the Porsche through the window. The salesman then turns to the customer, looks at a different car, and says, “Ya see, that’s the kind of guy that needs that kind of car; this is the sort of thing you want over here.” Hilarious! In one of the larger set pieces – a shootout at a plant involving a helicopter, mercenaries and lots of van explosions – just when you begin to wonder how none of the bullets hit our heroes, Leif Garrett’s Casey incredulously exclaims, “Those guys can’t shoot for shit!” Golden.
The film isn’t without its issues, which of course only adds to its charm. Along with the right-hand drive Pontiac, how did Dr. Rubin know to find them at the stunt show that night to offer them the job? Did she remember them from when she and researcher friend/lover Michael tried (and failed) to pass them on the highway earlier (it’s possible; the pink car is hard to miss)? These are minor quibbles, and for an unknown film I was quite impressed with how well the continuity held up, which is sometimes suspect in films where multiple cars (and stunt drivers) are deployed. Also, there are no T-top covers or windows on the car, even while they trek across the cold, snowy New Zealand highways (and Lisa Harrow as Dr. Rubin looks quite adept at crawling through the passenger-side window to enter the car; they’re obviously “welded shut,” because it’s a race car).
Competent driving scenes, great stunt work, lots of action, helicopters, gorgeous New Zealand scenery, a late-film action sequence on a boat(!), and even a man on fire escaping a van explosion (wait, what kinda budget did they have??)…in a brainless chase movie like this, you must deliver the genre goods when things slow down, and Shaker Run does that. The ending is fantastic as the final chase ends with the team literally running out of road and needing a miracle to survive not only the bad guys tailing them, but the CIA, who are only interested in the cargo, not the heroes. The final stunt is as fantastic as it is unbelievable!
Shaker Run, unfortunately, is only available in physical format on a full-screen, burn-on-demand DVD by FilmRise, apparently made available back in 2014 (it may be out there as part of a disc compilation, but this is what we have here at Movies & Drinks). It says “Digitally Remastered” across the top of the front cover (see image above). Well…if “digitally remastered” means they took an old Beta SP tape off the shelf and digitized it, then I guess it’s digitally remastered, because that’s what we get here with this presentation. The colors are a tad muted and you can spot tape damage here and there, along with some specks and dirt inherent in the original source film. But alas! I’m just happy to have the damn thing in my collection!
For it’s “small budget” feel, the film never bored me; I found it a pleasant surprise, especially for someone who loves this sub-genre. The end credits leave moviegoers with a fitting line: “Please Drive Home Safely.” To those sitting through Shaker Run in a 1985 movie theater, they probably weren’t kidding.