Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Remembering a classic: Shaker Run

9 comments
Shaker Run. Photo / File photo
Shaker Run. Photo / File photo

The canon of classic New Zealand films is small, but well-defined: A Once Were Warriors here, a Vigil there, a sprinkling of The Piano and a touch of In My Father's Den.

But what about all the other New Zealand movies? The ones that haven't necessarily had their place in history marked in stone, but which anyone who was there will remember.

This blog marks the first in what will be a semi-regular look at some of the less prominent Kiwi films of the past few decades, in which I will assess their contemporary entertainment value and attempt to identify their inherent Kiwiness.

1986's Shaker Run was part of a brief mid-'80s trend (along with Geoff Murphy's Never Say Die) in Kiwi filmmaking for American-style action movies.

It was directed by Bruce Morrison, then one of New Zealand's most prolific music video makers, and featured two American imports in the male lead roles: Cliff Robertson and Leif Garrett. Kiwi acting legend Lisa Harrow (Other Halves, The Final Conflict) is the leading lady.

Jim Kouf, a prolific American whose name appears on everything from Stakeout to Rush Hour to National Treasure, is credited with the Shaker Run script along with Morrison and executive producer Larry Fownes.

The two leading men make for a peculiar pairing: Robertson was handpicked to play JFK in 1961's PT109 and won an Oscar for 1968's Charly, but his role in the 1977 David Begelman/Columbia Pictures embezzlement scandal led to him being more or less blacklisted in Hollywood.

Although he eventually started getting decent roles again (he played Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man), his part in Shaker Run can't help but feel like some part of his Hollywood penance, as if he was banished to the bottom of the world to make a cruddy action movie for blowing the whistle on his rich studio pals.

Former teen idol Garrett on the other hand was in the midst of his now mythic mid-period - the time between being a bad singer and a professional recovering junkie.

They were a pair truly worthy of one of the less discerning Telethons.

Robertson plays Judd Pierson, a former star Nascar driver reduced to touring a stunt show through New Zealand's South Island with his enthusiastic young mechanic, Casey (Garrett). Just when it seems things can't get worse for the pair, they are hired by research scientist Dr Christine Rubin (Harrow) for an exorbitant sum ($3000!) to deliver her to a rendezvous point.

It seems Christine and her colleagues have accidentally stumbled upon a dangerous bioweapon, and to prevent the New Zealand military getting their hands on it, she has stolen the only samples and plans to gift them to the CIA, whom her co-worker boyfriend has been spying for.

Yep that's right. In this movie, we have more faith in the CIA doing the right thing with a dangerous bioweapon than the New Zealand military. Although to be fair, her CIA contact is played by Ian Mune doing an American accent.

Anyway, the rendezvous doesn't go as planned, and our intrepid trio find themselves being chased up the South Island by both the cops and a relentless private security force intent on retrieving the samples.

Shaker Run is content to rest almost entirely on its car stunts, which comprise either a Dukes of Hazzard-style jump, or managing to skid past a bunch of attackers without getting shot.

It's pretty thin stuff, but we should remember that in the '80's, a lot of people did a lot of crazy things in the name of some sort of special car. The car in question here is a modified Trans Am that somebody had the genius idea to paint pink.

'Shaker' - as the car is known - is not completely without charm onscreen, but by the time Shaker Run was over, boy was I tired of seeing long shots of it winding up hilltop country roads. That said, some of the camera-on-the-hood photography is fun, and even evoked Death Proof a bit.

Car stunts aside, the action movie conventions - the well-armed hit squad, the relentless No. 1 henchman, the shoot-outs - betray their New Zealandness, and are occasionally giggle-worthy at this point. Aussie actor Shane Briant (The Lighthorsemen) does stellar work as the main bad guy, a stereotypical action movie fixer who scowls a lot and barks orders at his men from a helicopter.

The genre-appropriate sax and synth score by Stephen McCurdy is pretty sparse, but I liked it when I heard it, and is one of the more seamless action movie elements in Shaker Run. It occasionally recalls the iconic action soundtracks James Horner composed for 48 Hours and Commando.

Robertson is clearly a well-oiled performer, but his ultra-tanned, leathery appearance is distracting, and is somehow further highlighted by the soft New Zealand backdrop. The pink car doesn't help.

Garrett is terrible, but it's reassuring to see him looking healthy for a change. Harrow delivers a performance that deserves to be in a better film and makes me enthusiastic about seeing more of her early work.

The plot feels pretty undercooked and the film ends very abruptly with the movie's most spectacular stunt: A Thelma & Louise-type gambit that ends better for these guys than it did for Thelma and Louise.

But the briefly-touched upon quandary of handing the bioweapon over to the CIA is left entirely unresolved - the people we're supposed to be rooting for in this movie are filthy traitors!

The New Zealand references are pretty minimal overall, no doubt designed to aid the film's potential palatability in the international market. But there's more than enough Kiwi-isms for locals to delight in and plenty of recognisable - if dated - locations.

I remember going to see Shaker Run at the movies as a kid and responding quite enthusiastically. Age hasn't been too kind to the film though, and watching it again did not make that enthusiasm well up once again within me.

But its action movie aspirations endear it to me. The idea of a truly awesome New Zealand action movie feels more possible than ever, so I'll always be interested in any effort aiming to be such a thing. Shaker Run is a must-watch for any New Zealanders interested in the genre.

Here are some observation categories I plan to apply to all the Kiwi films I cover:

Best signs it was made In New Zealand:

* The lorry Judd smashes through in his stunt show is emblazoned with the words "Petone Commercials".
* The guys drink in a bar where a punked-up Shona Laing performs a song called America while large Confederate flags hang either side of stage (!?).
* Ian Mune plays a CIA agent.
* Awkward Kiwi gawkers line the streets in the background of several stunt scenes.

Best line that mentions New Zealand:

* "Well, I haven't been with a New Zealand woman yet" is the response Judd (Cliff Robertson) receives when he asks the perpetually sunny Casey (Leif Garrett) if anything at all bothers him.

Notable connections to other New Zealand films:

* The spectre of Goodpie Pork Pie hangs all over Shaker Run, almost to the point of it seeming like the filmmakers wanted to stage a more action-y version of Geoff Murphy's legendary Kaitaia-to-Invercargill road film. Or maybe there just can't be a New Zealand action movie that doesn't fling its protagonist all over the country. Shaker Run inverts the direction of the chase in Pork Pie by heading up from the bottom of the South Island, but they're barely north of Wellington before the film ends. I was really looking forward to seeing Shaker hoof it through Hamilton. Oh well.
* The early stunt show crowd scenes recall similar moments in The Devil Dared Me To.

Inevitable Geoff Murphy-style Awful Sex Joke:

* During an embarrassingly chaste sex scene, the local lass Casey has just picked up at a bar (thus eliminating the one bugaboo in his life) insists on keeping the lights off.

Girl: "Sometimes things seem bigger in the dark."
Casey: "Mmm, I hope so."

Select IMDb User Comments:

* Brook Garrettson (US): "Shaker Run shows more of the New Zealand countryside than even Lord of the Rings. As an added bonus, there are fast V-8 powered cars speeding through it."
* Bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York): "I'm sure Robertson did it for the money and for a nice trip to New Zealand."
* Wes Connors: "Interestingly, the virus stolen by Harrow destroys the body's immune system, like Aids."
* Jonnie Comet (Surf City): "With driving like this the heroes never seem to stop for petrol. And although it's cold season in Queenstown they also never seem to slip on ice."

Lasting Impressions:

* Pink isn't a good look for a stunt car. Or any car.
* Lisa Harrow classes up anything she's in.
* New Zealand should make more pure action movies. Two isn't enough. Three if you count Battletruck. We'll only get better if we keep trying. No more imported leads. How is there not a South Auckland 48 Hours?

If any of this makes you wanna see Shaker Run (or see it again!), it was recently re-issued in a bare bones DVD release - in the decidedly non-glorious 4:3 aspect ratio.

* Have you seen Shaker Run? Planning on doing so now? What other 'other' New Zealand films would you like to see covered here? Comment below!

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 02 Oct 2014 15:34:12 Processing Time: 701ms