Dollman (1991)

Director: Albert Pyun
18 | 1h 22min | Action, Comedy, Sci-fi

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Is it a bird? It couldn’t be a plane; it’s way too small. Though it did travel from another galaxy. Perhaps it’s an alien, the kind of terrifying practical effects creation that wowed late 20th century audiences. Afraid not. This production doesn’t quite have the budget, a fact made apparent during the movie’s second act when an action figure is attached to the side of a bad guy’s car to simulate a small person ― I could hardly believe my eyes.

Dollman is a superhero of sorts. He doesn’t have any special powers (at least none I would call particularly special). He just comes from a planet where people are really small, a planet that looks red when viewed from outer space, only to have an atmosphere exactly like Earth’s during the movie’s mercifully succinct set-up. This may explain why that same planet later appears to be yellow, though my guess is these are blaring continuity fails that were presumably included as a budget necessity, and there are plenty of those to entertain you here; plenty of cheapo production quirks that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

There’s stock footage everywhere in this movie. Two scenes, taking place on Dollman’s native planet Arturos and Earth, respectively, seem to have been shot at the exact same location without any attempt to disguise the fact. The film’s trailer even nabs music straight from Robocop in the kind of audacious copyright infringement that just wouldn’t happen in today’s micromanaged world, and, as fans of Charles Band’s now defunct Full Moon Productions will no doubt tell you, it all works quite beautifully.

Dollman is 13 Earth inches tall. On Arturos he comes equipped with a “Kruger Blaster”, which is supposedly the most powerful gun in the universe. Back home, one shot is enough to make a person explode, and I don’t use the word Explode lightly. I’m talking big, quivering chunks of watermelon flesh, bodies splattered against rocks like abstract art made with human organs and a blender. Unfortunately, the weapon is far less emphatic when used on the gang of South Bronx nogoodniks who our unlikely hero ultimately comes up against.

It may not be Blade Runner, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to fall in love with this model work. Whoever it may belong to.

That’s not to say our bite-sized protagonist is ineffective against opponents who are five-hundred times his size (when the crudely devised compositions allow as much). In fact, his trigger-happy escapades give Charles Bronson’s perennial scourge Paul Kersey a run for his money. There’s even something of a social conscience here, a commentary on the law’s maltreatment of inner-city minorities around the time of the infamous L.A. Riots. Forget New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society. This is the ultimate ‘hood’ movie… the ultimate ‘hood’ movie crossover anyway.

Dollman’s real name is Brick Bardo, which probably gives you an indication of the kind of character we’re dealing with. Sporting a grey buzz cut and dressed in a Bogart-style overcoat, Bardo is a transparent Dirty Harry knock-off who chases long-time nemesis Sprug through a wormhole that coincidentally leads to Earth, or at least what’s left of him. Thanks to a law that sees criminals lose body parts as punishment for crimes against humanity, Sprug is no more than a mechanically operated head which floats around pulling insane faces, spewing malevolent super villainy with the physical impotence of a slug in a salt blizzard (bear in mind, here on Earth that head is the size of a small tomato). Quite the predicament, especially since Sprug is confined to a veritable wasteland which is almost certainly overrun by rats. I’m sure he’ll get by just fine.

For a while Sprug takes a backseat as Brick soon has other matters to take care of ― the non-celestial kind that require little-to-no budget. Single mum Debi Alejandro (Kamala Lopez) is sick and tired of local gangbangers running roughshod over her community (she even kicks the shit out of some dude for loitering in her neighbourhood), and even more tired of a police force who have no intention of cleaning up the inner cities. If only a hero could rise from the ashes and take care of things the old fashioned way, perhaps someone from another planet who doesn’t have to worry about being fingered for taking his John Wayne act to the New York City streets. Not when you can simply hide him in a cookie jar and store his spaceship beneath son Kevin’s bed. The ship in question, carried under Debi’s arm like a Star Wars toy, is absolutely priceless.

Feeling lucky, punk?

After Brick disposes of a gaggle of gang members who attempt to set her ablaze with a can of gasoline, Debi doesn’t seem at all concerned by the miniature bad ass staring back up at her, nor by the fact that the shoddy green screen composite makes her look bigger than the full-scale construction site towering behind them. This isn’t an isolated incident. The cheapskate special effects are something to behold. Expect a lot of low and high-angle shots as director Albert Pyun, famous for schlocky sci-fi outings such as 1989‘s Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle Cyborg, does everything within his means to create the illusion of a tiny man in a land of giants. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t, but you have to admire the numerous shortcuts and budget-concealing tricks used to patch this thing together. In the realms of ‘bad’ movie fandom, it’s 82 minutes of glorious entertainment, a five-minute highlight reel tacked-on to expand the film’s running time notwithstanding.

Dollman is played by cult B-movie legend and Full Moon go-to guy Tim Thomerson. Thomerson had first unleashed his Rick Deckard-on-a-Z-budget-schtick in the similarly irresistible sci-fi escapade Trancers for Band’s previous, small-scale distribution company Empire International Pictures, and he absolutely owns this film, oozing cinematic cool with his action star impudence and supreme comic timing. It all comes so naturally to him, the actor exhibiting a wonderful sense of self-mocking.

Another notable face is future Freddy Krueger Jackie Earl Haley as Bardo’s Earth-bound nemesis Braxton Red, a vicious gang leader who makes a deal with Sprug that will see him come into possession of a powerful micro-bomb that will ‘rip their dimension a new ass hole’, meaning everything within three parsecs will be blown into another dimension forever ― if that makes any more sense to you. Haley plays it to the hilt in a movie full of surprisingly colourful turns. You get the impression that the whole cast are having fun here, throwing themselves headlong into a bottom-rung production that wears its cheapo extravagances proudly on its lapel. I’ve seen some lifeless B-movies in my time, clueless productions that struggle to a painful crawl. Dollman is joyously creative and wholly self-aware. It lacks refinement but makes up for it with pure, unabashed zeal.

Band and co-screenwriters David Pabian and Chris Roghair are in their element parodying urban vigilante tropes, Thomerson’s deadpan approach to the material genuinely amusing, especially when Bardot is mocked for wearing shades in the dark, the movie lampooning the character’s kitsch extravagances while still maintaining his sense of cool. Dollman may be cheaper than a second-hand Barbie with a bad case of alopecia, but it delights in sending up bigger budget movies that are essentially just as far-fetched, highlighting the inherent silliness of shoot-first-ask-questions-later characters, the kind who approach acts of street-bound genocide unflinchingly and without consequence.

Charles Band set out to make movies, and movies he would surely make.

This may not be peak Band in terms of finance and output, but it’s still a joy to behold for connoisseurs of second-rate fare. Those of you who aren’t familiar with the producer’s work will probably recognise at least one title from his Empire Pictures apotheosis. The obvious one is the Puppet Master series, a fun and inventive horror franchise that’s still going strong today, but Band, who set out to create a studio system to rival that of the major Hollywood companies, enjoyed a pretty successful spell during the mid-1980s, focusing on theatrical output having secured a deal with cult distributor Vestron Video. Working with the likes of Stuart Gordon, Empire were behind such cult classics as Ghoulies (1985), Re-Animator (1986), Eliminators (1986), From Beyond (1986), Troll (1986) and Dolls (1987), even going as far as purchasing legendary Italian film production company Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica before long-term debt obligations plunged them into financial ruin.

Band would soldier on with numerous ventures, giving us a cult catalogue to rival that of Golan-Globus and The Cannon Group for sheer, eclectic madness, operating with a seemingly unlimited conceptual canvas that’s indicative of a man who clearly just loves making movies. They’re clever too, resourceful, and in Thomerson Band unearthed a truly magnetic, tongue-in-cheek presence who added an endearing dose of panache to proceedings. Movies like Dollman employ all kinds of cute tricks to get the most out of very little, and there is such an irresistible punk aesthetic to it all. It is dime store, renegade filmmaking, bursting from the seams with B-movie implausibility. Budgetary restrictions aside, there’s just so much to admire, so much fun to be had. Every time I sit down and watch a Charles Band movie I feel like a kid again.

Napoleon Complex

The great thing about egomaniacal villain, Sprug, is that he’s absolutely confident in his abilities to conquer an alien land that leaves him vulnerable to even the tiniest pest, so confident that he turns to the baddest dudes in NYC to aid his conquest. Dumb move, man!

After nursing the fatally wounded Braxton Red back to health with some celestial magic, Sprug has the gangster in his back pocket, or so he thinks. Pushed too far by his sprout-sized, Draconian master, Red decides to simply squash him and take the bomb for free.

For such a bad dude, you’d think he’d have recognised the opportunity to exploit from the outset.

Hey, Big Boy

Dollman isn’t short on absurdity. Both the spaceship and the doll attached to the side of a car had me giggling inanely, but the movie is just as ridiculous when it’s played straight, something Band was no doubt aware of.

One such scene sees our tiny hero fess up about his tragic past, comparing stories with the equally unfortunate Debi. There’s something about the sight of a full-sized woman, in bed, revealing her most intimate woes to an action figure sized alien slumped next to a toy ship on her bedside table, that really tickles me.

A Social Conscience

While all-out warfare wages on the same junk heap location used throughout the movie, a worried Braxton Red, communicating through his CB radio while in possession of the kidnapped Debi, wonders what on Earth is happening to all of his men.

Braxton Red: Hey, Jimmer! Jimmer, man, where the fuck are you? Get down here! We’re ready to roll! What the fuck is going on down there?

Brick Bardo aka Dollman: Urban fucking renewal!

Choice Dialogue

Fed up with Bardo’s ceaseless acts of devastation, including a scene in which he takes out most of his gang in Debi’s apartment (quite the example to set for her son, who she’s trying to shield from violent influences), Braxton Red regroups and addresses his remaining crew in no uncertain terms.

Braxton Red: We’re gonna go to war.

Gang member: With who?

Braxton Red: [insulted by the gang member’s failure to identify their target] The fuckin’ Dollman, who else?

Of course. How stupid of him.

Driven by droll humour, cute genre nods and kitsch visuals galore, is admirably resourceful, with a sense of style that belies its bargain-basement budget. A young Jackie Earle Haley brings some much needed enthusiasm and acting nous to proceedings, but the movie belongs to Thomerson’s budget Rick Deckard, Brick Bardo, a neo-noir derivative played to the bone-dry hilt.

Edison Smith

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