For Cannon Films, Chuck Norris + Godard = Success


For more than a decade, behind a logo that looked nothing like a cannon, Cannon Films produced work by a pool of auteurs ranging from Godard to Goddard—that would be Gary Goddard, director of Cannon’s 1987 He-Man flop Masters of the Universe.

With an aesthetic that might best be described by the title of another underperforming Cannon film—Over the Top, starring Sylvester Stallone as an itinerant arm-wrestler—Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus took a quietly failing production company and turned it into a catastrophic success. Both born near the Sea of Galilee, it was Menahem who changed his surname in patriotic solidarity with the Heights. “They called us the Kings of Cannes,” the now-81-year-old recalls from his U.K. offices of the years when Cannon, now receiving a tribute at Lincoln Center, roared over the Croisette and aspired to become the youngest major studio through a regimen of hustle and low overhead.

Golan cut his teeth working for Roger Corman’s The Young Racers (1963) in Monte Carlo, where he “learned the most about fast and low-budget productions” from watching the master. Applying those lessons, Golan and Globus’s Noah Films became an established player in the Israeli film industry. The Academy Award nomination for their re-creation of the Entebbe airport rescue, Operation Thunderbolt (1977), gave them the cocksure confidence to launch Invasion U.S.A. Golan had already made his first American film (“I chose the subject from an Encyclopedia of Crime”) by ’79, when the salesmen extraordinaire struck a deal to sell the catalog of foundering U.S.-based Cannon Films internationally—then turned around with their commission and bought the company outright.

Over the next 10 years, Cannon churned out cheapo films celebrating the prowess of big-dick American vigilantes, underwriting the careers of Charles Bronson, Michael Dudikoff, and Chuck Norris, of whom Golan proudly recalls, “I signed [him] for two pictures a year, seven years’ contract.” Lincoln Center’s retrospective necessarily compresses the cousins’ busy 1980s captaincy—in 1985, Cannon produced more films than any American studio—into 13 films that meet diverse definitions of “remarkable.”

The focus of the series is on the other side of Cannon. Despite a reputation for cheap assembly-line exploitation, Golan and Globus aspired to critical and festival recognition. So, in the words of Golan, they “started to recruit great directors to Cannon.” With their peculiar idea of what constitutes a “prestige” project—no English Patient here—Golan-Globus gained a reputation for hearing out pitches met with slammed doors everywhere else. Not that Cannon always parted easily with money: Golan recounted filmmaker Barbet Schroeder threatening to cut off his own finger when they hesitated to greenlight his proposed Charles Bukowski adaptation, Barfly. (Cannon caved, obviously.)

Golan is perhaps alone in calling Runaway Train (1985), by Russian import Andrei Konchalovsky, “one of the best movies of the century”—but Eric Roberts and Jon Voight’s delightful free-range scenery-munching is a good example of Cannon’s High Art. Still better: Cannon’s bankrolling of the second coming of Norman Mailer, filmmaker, in Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), a wildly quotable flashbacks-within-flashbacks tale of murder and erotic despair. It shares an outré black humor with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), one of three films Tobe Hooper made under Cannon’s aegis, a gleefully grating burlesque with Dennis Hopper and Co. revved up until their hysterics overcome the constant buzz of Leatherface’s chainsaw. It’s a rarity to find movies that don’t instruct their audience how to react to them, but in assuming a viewer capable of handling such disorientations, these films show a rare degree of, yes, sophistication. (Cannonites did have their limits: Golan remembers nominating Mailer for the lead role in Godard’s King Lear, only to have Mailer leave the set over Godard’s direction of him and his real-life daughter. “He wants me to kiss my daughter,” Mailer evidently balked of his director, “and he wants me to stick my tongue into her mouth.”)

The most challenging Cannon picture may be one of Golan’s own. Take a bite from 1980’s The Apple, a pop musical with aggressive, full-cast Jazzercise dance numbers in what looks like a mall food court, and an Old Testament–knockoff plot based on the battle between glittery bisexual New Wavers and earnest, fake-beard ’60s types. “It was a lovely story,” recalls Golan, tickled with the film’s growing cult.

It would take willful perversity to posit outsider madmen like Golan and Globus as the Medicis of drear Reagan-era entertainment. But if Cannon usually fell off the wrong side of the ridiculous-sublime tightrope, they also gave us Morgan Freeman’s pimp in Street Smart (1987), first seen drinking from a Yoo-hoo bottle with his pinkie regally raised; John Glover’s unctuous blackmailer in the fine John Frankenheimer rehab piece 52 Pick-Up (1986); and John Cassavetes’s last and most beautiful film, Love Streams (1984).

The story of Cannon’s overextension and dissolution, and the cousins’ public feud over competing lambada-themed movies, is an epic unto itself. (Globus now operates from Tel Aviv, though the two have since made amends.) But if we can now look back with nostalgia on the Cannon legacy, it’s for a film culture richer with wild cards, buccaneers, and gate-crashers, blissfully oblivious to the mandates of good taste, willing, as with King Lear, to sign a $1.5 million contract for a scriptless movie on a napkin. “The independents today in the world are really in rough shape,” opines Golan. “I think that America [is missing] another Roger Corman.” Failing that, we’d be lucky to have another Golan and Globus to kick around.