Cannon Fodder: In Praise of Golan and Globus

Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus? Famous for B-Movies Death WishMenahem and Yoram– they were something, no?

We’re talking Golan and Globus, and they were not a law firm.

As the powers behind Cannon Films, the Israeli cousins were, in fact, “The Go-Go Boys,” two of the most prolific feature film producers for 12 years, spanning from 1979 to 1991. Golan was an Oscar-nominated producer/ director of Operation: Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan), a 1977 thriller about the real-life 1976 anti-terrorist raid on a plane held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

The relatives are the subject of two—count ‘em– two  different documentaries in production: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films from Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood), and The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films from Hilla Medalia (Dancing in Jaffa).

It seems like Go-Go mania is upon us.

The brash moviemaking team cranked out genre film after genre film during their reign as the enfants terrible of the cinema industry. They put up the bucks to keep such stars as Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Michael Dudikoff, Zachi Noy, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Boogaloo Shrimp busy.

On the filmmaking side, they regularly employed the likes of J. Lee Thompson, Sam Firstenberg, John Derek, Tobe Hooper, Boaz Davidson, Albert Pyun and Globus himself in the director’s chair.

And then there were the prestige pictures, helmed by Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear), Norman Mailer (Tough Guys Don’t Dance), Nicolas Roeg (Castaway), John Cassavetes (Love Streams), Barbet Schroeder (Barfly),  John Frankenheimer (52 Pick-Up), Robert Altman (Fool for Love), Herbert Ross (The Dancers), Ivan Passer (Haunted Summer), Fred Schepisi (A Cry in the Dark), Franco Zeffirelli (Otello), Godfrey Reggio (Powaqqatsi),  Dusan Makavejev (Manifesto) and Dutch filmmaker Fons Rademakers, whose 1985 World War II drama The Assault won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Their output over those dozen years is truly one-of-a-kind, ranging from the schlockiest of schlocky to the artiest of arty.

The Cannon Group’s existence actually predated Golan and Globus’ involvement. It was 1967, to be exact, when the independent company was started by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey to make low-budget films. They had a big hit with Joe, John Avildsen’s 1970 generation gap sensation with Peter Boyle as the racist hardhat who joins a dispirited father (Dennis Patrick) to help find his runaway hippie daughter (Susan Sarandon) in Greenwich Village. Also in their stable were the Happy Hooker franchise; Fando and Lis, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film; and numerous sexploitation pictures like The Yum-Yum Girls and Cherry Hill High.

Facing financial woes in the 1970s, the partners sold the company to Golan and Globus. The ex-Israeli Air Force pilot Golan already had several directing credits under his belt, including Kazablan, a musical in Hebrew that fared well around the world, and Lepke, a biopic starring Tony Curtis as American-Jewish gangster Louis Buchalter that was released in the U.S. by Warner Bros.

apple_albumEarly on in the cousins’ tenure, Globus shot The Apple, a disco-ized science fiction film designed to cash in on the popularity of Grease and Saturday Night Fever (and, perhaps, Can’t Stop the Music, released the same year). Filled with Biblical references and originally conceived as a Hebrew stage musical, the Faustian frolic—which was filmed in Germany–told of two rebellious Canadian teens getting a look at the corrupt, drug-fueled side of the music industry when they partake in a festival contest. The results are even worse than it sounds on paper, although The Apple eventually became a cult item at midnight screenings, where enthusiastic audiences got a kick out of its terrible dialogue, lame music, and far-out production and costume design.

Of course, there would be many more clunkers in the years to come, movies that never lasted more than a week in theaters around the world—   if they got to movie theaters in the first place.  But the studio managed to spit out films—as many as 40-plus a year, at times—because of the way they did business.

Cannon’s rise was perfectly timed with the video boom of the early 1980s. So, their martial arts, action features and sequels were made quickly and cheaply, and then sold for high profits to the international home video and cable markets.

The simple philosophy of Cannon’s success was exemplified when Golan said: “If you make an American film with a beginning, a middle and an end, with a budget of less than five million dollars, you must be an idiot to lose money.“

1986’s The Delta Force, an “all-star,” Dirty Dozen-like actioner based on a 1985 incident, centers on a team of elite commandos boldly taking on the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a TWA plane bound for Athens. Filmed in gung-ho style by Golan (in the shadow of the success of 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II), the picture showcased The Dirty Dozen’s own Lee Marvin in his last film role. The wacked-out supporting cast included Chuck Norris, Martin Balsam, Shelley Winters, Robert Forster, Robert Vaughn, George Kennedy, Lainie Kazan, Susan Strasberg, Bo Svenson and, son-of-a-gun, Joey Bishop. The film did solid business and spawned two sequels, despite lousy reviews—The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote “’’Delta Force’’…will be the 1986 film all others will have to beat for sheer, unashamed, hilariously vulgar vaingloriousness. The mind reels at the thought of what Mr. Norris and his associates might do with the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s unfortunate accident on the Little Big Horn. Crazy Horse wouldn’t know what hit him.”

True to form with the Delta Force series, Cannon would heavily promote their projects at film festivals, with posters, parties and ads in trade publications enticing buyers to pony up.  It was common come festival time for Cannon to take scads of pages promoting upcoming films—whether deals were finalized or not—in Variety. This interested many foreign buyers, and surely ruffled a few feathers on the talent side.

Sometimes this style of “working the business” would backfire, as the company would announce a project, attract buyers with  an attached star, then find the picture would never come to fruition—or, if it did, it would feature a less prominent actor.

Examples of this could be found in ill-fated projects like an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s La Brava, with Dustin Hoffman in a Miami-set thriller directed by Hal Ashby, or the musical version of Zorba the Greek, with Anthony Quinn and John Travolta. Both were trumpeted in Cannon trade ads—neither got past the planning stage.

Some of the films that Cannon took on were just not things a Hollywood studio would entertain. Consider 1987’s King Lear, brought to life famously in a deal that was consummated by Golan and Globus when director Jean-Luc Godard signed a napkin at the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring a cast that offered Godard, Molly Ringwald, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith and British stage director Peter Sellars, the film is an incomprehensible neo-Shakespearean shambles that some believed was a put-on by Godard targeted at his money-minded producers.

Then, in true exploitation style, there were the films cranked out quickly and cheaply to cash in on the hottest pop culture trends of the day. This would explain such epics as Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, 1983 musicals designed to attract the burgeoning interest in breakdancing, and Salsa (1988) and Lambada (1990)—enough said.

Several of Cannon’s bigger budgeted efforts simply backfired, even in light of the enterprise’s shrewdness in pre-selling rights. Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, made two expensive science fiction films for them (the awful Invaders from Mars remake and the ambitious misfire Lifeforce), as well as a low-budget sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but none of them fared well at the box-office. Sylvester Stallone’s arm-wrestling opus Over the Top never achieved wide grunt appeal, and such forays into superhero fantasy as Masters of the Universe and Captain America were flat.

Golan and Globus? B-Movie KingsPerhaps the biggest blow to the company, however, was 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a project Cannon took over from Warner Brothers. Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel returned to take on the clone Nuclear Man, but the showdown was marred by tacky special effects and gaps in logic, thanks to Cannon’s extensive cost-cutting and hatchet-like editing. Reportedly, the studio had allotted a budget of over $30 million, which had been whittled down to a paltry $15 million by the time the film was done. A limp box-office return of $16 million and less-than-enthusiastic reviews (“Superman IV is a pathetic appendage to the series, a dull, shoddy film that makes the minimal 1950s TV series seem rife with production values by comparison,” wrote David Kehr in the Chicago Tribune) did not help matters, nor did the fact that Cannon overextended its cash flow, with scores of other movies in various stages of production at the time.

The era of “The Go-Go Boys” was about to be gone-gone. With serious cash flow problems, Warner Brothers stepped in, as did Pathe Communications later. Golan and Globus parted ways. The glory days were kaput. Cannon attempted to restart a few times, but all efforts eventually stalled. Golan went on to make other films, including 1998’s The Versace Murder, centering on serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s slaying of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Globus owns a chain of movie theaters in Israel.

After years of estrangement, the cousins recently got together again.

Can a regrouping for The Cannon Group be far behind?

Paging Chuck Norris.