It's time to make fun of Joe Estevez.
Sorry in advance, Joe.
There's Joe, passed out on the couch, just as he has been since noon. "Wake up, big brother," Martin says with half-intentional reference to the Orwell novel, "it's time to make you feel bad again." Joe looks up with those puppy-dog eyes and they are truly adorable. Honestly, Joe seems such a nice guy that part of me wants to put all humorous asides away. But no, the Sheens all prod him along. "Come on now, you brought this on yourself when you decided to take film roles that would pay you in Pabst Blue Ribbon and beef jerky."
There are so many films the Sheens could bring up at the film festival that is to follow. But my guess is that one of their favorites is Donald G. Jackson's ROLLERGATOR. That's right - ROLLERGATOR. Martin leads the proceedings with glee. "Okay, we could always look at my performance as the Starkweather-like villain in Terrance Malick's brilliant film BADLANDS... and then we'll watch Joe in ROLLERGATOR." Or "Aaaah, APOCALYPSE NOW. Poured myself in that role. Had a nervous breakdown on camera and nearly died of heart problems in the middle of the jungle. The most horrific surrealistic dissection of Vietnam to the backbone of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness,' directed by Coppola in his prime... and then we'll watch Joe in ROLLERGATOR." Or even "Hey, let's make it light today. You know that Emmy-nominated thing I did on THE WEST WING? Yeah, the first season finale where I stand alone in the National Cathedral and rail against God for his pettiness and expose my own bitterness in the process? Great stuff there, the most powerful man in the world embittered and humbled by his own faith... and then ROLLERGATOR."
Okay, it's mean. Downright cruel, but you really have to be prepared for this film. As previously mentioned, ROLLERGATOR is directed by Donald G. Jackson, who unfortunately passed away a few years back. His most notable film was HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, a wonderfully fun and insane post-apocalyptic camp classic starring Roddy Piper, William Smith and Sandahl Bergman. He also did a film around the same time called ROLLER BLADE. If FROGTOWN showed a great camp mind at work with a perfect balance of absurd humor and pulp adventure, ROLLER BLADE showed that campiness go off the rails as it detailed a religious group of roller blading vixens who smoke in hamfisted Old English-inspired prose and worshiped the "Have a nice day" smiley face.
Jackson returned to Frogtown and roller blading warriors many times throughout his career, which spanned over thirty features. I will admit I have still not seen the vast majority of Jackson's filmography. Not all titles are easy to find. In fact, at the official Jackson website, some long out of print titles are going for nearly fifty bucks a piece. This title, ROLLERGATOR can be found in the GIRLS FROM ANOTHER WORLD four pack of films from budget DVD company, Brentwood - the guys who invented the 10 and 20 movie box sets of dubious legality. The three other titles in the set include two other Jackson films, BIG SISTER 2000 and TOAD WARRIOR as well as Jay Woefel and Dennis Devine's vaguely-titled THINGS.
A film built around the prize at a carnival game? Why not?
The title ROLLERGATOR leads one to hope that we will see giant rollerskating (or since its a Jackson film, roller blading) alligators - maybe even ones that also speak in hamfisted Old English. Unfortunately, we open the film with b-roll of Joe Estevez as not-too-evil carnival owner Chi Chi, wandering around his carny and rushing to various rides and trying to climb water slides. It's as disarming and awkwardly hilarious as it sounds.
We then switch to a mostly-deserted beach. The only people there are a beach girl and a ninja. "Woah! Hold on," I hear you say. Look, if you stop me every time something inane or crazy pops up, we're going to be here all night. Just kick back as I drop this little gem in your laps, okay?
So, this "Dark Ninja" hangs out in the open on a bright day and is quickly spotted by the only other person in a half mile radius. What I'm saying is she (or yeah, it's a she) might be evil, but she's not very good at her job. Definitely excelled to ninja class through a correspondence course, you see. So, the ninja leaves and the beach girl. whose name is PJ, vaguely hears someone calling for help from a cave. I say vaguely because throughout almost the entire running time of the film, a loud and largely improvised acoustic guitar soundtrack threatens to drown out all speech.
Look out! Dark Ninja! Though not very stealthy.
PJ ventures into the cave and finds the source of the noise. It's a tiny purple alligator, who it turns out is awfully rude. Rude, but not crass. "Baby Gator's" insults consist mainly of calling people "booger breath" and such. Ah-ha! So, this is a kid's film? First of all, I warned you about interrupting. Second, I would say ROLLERGATOR is definitely a kids film except the production values and approach to the story would likely tax any kids patience. No, although there is nothing to offend the little ones, I don't think we can say unreservedly that this is a kids film.
Baby Gator, as you can imagine, is a hand puppet and not a very convincing one. Usually, he is shown in extreme closeup. More often, he is shown stationary. Occasionally, he is shown at the far end of the screen so that someone can move his entire body (but not his mouth) back and forth.
Baby Gator is on the run from the Dark Ninja, dispatched by Chi Chi. The carnival is strapped for cash and he wants to cage Baby Gator to earn a profit. PJ roller blades around aimlessly with Baby Gator in her backpack, never venturing far from the carnival which is of course the last place the gator should be. The two are eventually helped by a kid named Slingshot and a karate instructor named, um Karate Instructor. Ed Wood vet Conrad Brooks is also on hand as swamp farmer who is looking for his friend, Baby Gator.
Our heroes. You sort of start to adore them, despite yourself.
Let's get to some of the basics. I've mentioned the soundtrack. When you can hear what's going on, the dialogue defies explanation Lots of childish insults that would not insult anyone over the age of three follow. Baby Gator also does impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other "topical" icons. He grosses PJ out by romantically talking about the stinkiness of his beloved swamp. Oh, and did I mention he raps? Yeah, Baby Gator raps but it's of the "...and I'm here to say" variety. I would say how horrible this rapping is, but the fact is I am really not a fan of rap or hip-hop, and hence it is all comparable.
Joe Estevez is humorously allowed to go off script in a few scenes, as if trying to flex his acting chops. He is reluctantly brought back when it threatens the continuity of the film. At one point, he suggests disguises only to be told they don't need disguises (You can practically hear Jackson yelling "That costs money! What are you doing to me?!?" off-screen). He then suggests leaving his idiotic nephew to the search while he goes to eat cotton candy. Joe is also given a scene that references Jackson's numerous trips to Frogtown. But the pièce de résistance (SPOILER AHEAD) is when Joe is turned into an alligator man, meaning he just has a mammoth alligator head placed on his shoulders. Since the mouth doesn't move, Joe Estevez, of the Sheen dynasty, must talk by vigorously moving his head back and forth. When he has to chew on his nephew's head (yeah, maybe not a kids film after all), the guy has to lean right into him while Joe opens the jaws of the gator with his own hands.
Joe helps out by manually operating the machinery.
ROLLERGATOR is the kind of film that tests the patience of any viewer. But it's also one of those films you hold up with pride. "Look what I sat through," you will tell your grandchildren. Jackson was an odd duck. He made films that made you scratch your head. Some were just flat out great camp masterpieces, while others seemed so inept it was hard to fathom how the films came together. And through it all, one wonders what the audience for these films is. I wondered that all through ROLLERGATOR. It's not for kids, it's not for action fans, it's not for comedic movie fans, it's not even for camp movie fans since the execution is so odd. So, who the hell would a film this inane be for?
And that is when I realize the shocking horror of what Jackson has done. Who is the audience for ROLLERGATOR? I am. Most will be immediately turned off by this film and unable to finish it. Others will see it all the way through, and if they don't love it, they will certainly remember it. And somewhere deep in that damaged brain, they will be curious to see what else this wonderful crackpot had come up with. Donald G. Jackson, Joe Estevez, the whole shebang. Who needs the Sheens when we have these surrogate families that are the only ones who truly understand? Yes, horrifying as it sounds, I am the audience for this film. This is the way I was wired from the day the nurse dropped me on my baby head.
To coin Nietzsche, "Gaze for long into the ROLLERGATOR, the ROLLERGATOR gazes also into you."