Just how far can a movie make it propelled by nostalgia alone? That’s the question that Turbo Kid seems intent on asking the viewer. In much the same tenuous way that Robert Rodriguez’s Machete films sprung into being off of the back of a fake trailer housed within the Grindhouse project, Turbo Kid began life as a short that was rejected from The ABCs of Death. Rejected from. It doesn’t sound that auspicious, but it’s creators François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell have dug deep and turned their idea into a functioning 93 minute feature film. And if your favourite movie of 2011 was Hobo With A Shotgun, well, you’re about to have the best time of your life.
The kitsch underpinning that supports Turbo Kid like crutches is there before the film’s even technically started, with the first ident for Epic Pictures championing itself as being the “#1 Leader In Laser Disc Sales”. Already the thrumming 80’s synth score is under way, too. There are fifteen different production company idents at the start of Turbo Kid. Fifteen. I think that’s a record, as far as I’ve seen, and gives you some perspective on how all-hands-on-deck this threadbare production is. That sounds negative, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that this must’ve been a labour of love, a passion project for all who put their hand in. And so we’re introduced to the movie. “This is the future,” intones a classic-sounding sci-fi narrator. We see a wasteland and we’re told, of course, that we’re in the distant year of… 1997.
Yes, Turbo Kid has been projected to us from the middle of the 80’s. Some inexplicable time capsule has released it, or at least, that’s the scenario it’s creators would no doubt aim for you to imagine. In another universe somewhere this film was made thirty years ago, and sits beside titles like The Terminator or Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior as quintessential to its pop culture time period.
As such we’re introduced to The Kid (Munro Chambers), on the cusp of adolescence, rifling through trash for usable parts in this dirt-cheap post-apocalyptic world, his brightly coloured bicycle not ten feet away. But in short order we’re also reminded of Rubik’s Cubes, Sony Walkmans, View-Masters and a host of other ‘back in the day’ toys and novelty items. Because make no mistake, while this film does have an enjoyable if tracing-paper-thin story, it’s as much about acknowledging and memorialising the past. I don’t want to be cruel to Turbo Kid – I enjoyed its plucky spirit – but it’s prioritising in this regard reminds me strongly of Pixels from just a few weeks ago; it’s a film that trades on nostalgia. However, vitally, where Pixels felt like a disinterested cash-in, you can sense Simard and the Whissell’s genuine affection for the totems of the past that they so enthusiastically parade before the camera.
This continues into the cast. The Kid meets the roguish Frederic (Aaron Jeffrey) early on; an Indiana Jones wannabe to the point where you wonder if there might be a lawsuit in the works soon. Even more pointed (and a coup for the film) is Michael Ironside chipping in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek performance as the film’s villain Zeus. In a very real sense he is as commodified here as all the 70’s and 80’s trinkets that adorn the movie. It’s meta-casting, the likes of which Quentin Tarantino would whole-heartedly approve of. But can film trade on this kind of nostalgia alone? That’s the nagging problem here. What’s underneath? Regardless, it is kinda great to see Ironside back on the screen, sneering it up a storm.
The Kid makes friends with a girl named Apple (the career-hamperingly-named Laurence Laboeuf), whose autism-lite mannerisms and downright creepy manic grin betray her secret before the film can. She looks like she’s trying to cosplay herself. Together they forge a friendship in the film’s bleak wasteland. But The Kid is weak. Vulnerable. However, when he finds the super-suit of his idol Turbo Man, he is able to step into the shoes of a hero. Caught by the evil Zeus in order for their bodies to be processed into water, the film explodes into an orgy of gore and ultra-violence, riffing on films like The Arena in the process.
And it’s all very, very silly. The Kid makes Apple a weapon that’s a garden gnome on a stick. One of the bad guys looks – with every intention I’m sure – like Lightning from Big Trouble In Little China. Another is a literal skull-kid with a circular saw for a hand. And before long you’ll witness the most morbidly inventive misuse of a bicycle in perhaps all of cinema history. Turbo Kid is a comedy, and it plays directly to an adult audience wanting to revel in half-forgotten glories.
In that sense it is this year’s Hobo With A Shotgun, but the recent release it most closely rekindles is Chappie in that it is, ostensibly, a kid’s film, but with the schlock violence of a bargain bin VHS splatter movie. But where Chappie seemed uncertain who it was for, Turbo Kid is almost too shrewd about it’s target market. As enjoyable as this nonsense is… it feels a little too self-aware. Kitsch doesn’t work like that. And so the film becomes see-through. You can enjoy it, absolutely, but you can always see the directing trio just off to the side, watching the dailies, nodding and smiling to themselves. Being filmed digitally (surely out of necessity) hurts the project as well. While it tries so hard to be of another time, it just doesn’t look it. Which is a real shame because this is an idea all about aesthetics. In the end, Turbo Kid is so light that the killer retro soundtrack by Jean-Phillipe Bernier and Jean-Nicholas Leupi Le Matos is genuinely the best thing about it. Stick that out on vinyl and I’ll genuinely be a happy chap.
I feel as though I’m being overly mean. This is clearly dear to the hearts of everyone involved. You can see the enjoyment of its creators up on the screen. And I imagine it was a lot of fun to make. But I’m reminded of something Adam Wingard said on the You’re Next commentary; that if you’re having too much fun making a movie, you should probably think about why that is. Turbo Kid is fun. But it isn’t quite all it wants to be. And all it wants to be is a lost relic of the past. A curious oddity of 2015, for sure, and one worth sharing with friends over some beers, but that’s strictly all it is. Take it on those terms and you’ll have a blast. But don’t go looking for anything more.