Home Books The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984: by Austin Trunick

The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984: by Austin Trunick

Like a vintage VHS tape, Austin Trunick’s The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1 comes with its own tagline: “Ninjas! Breakdancers! Death Wishes!” runs across the top of the book’s cover, with an orange ACTION sticker reproduced just as if the book were a rental copy from the glorious ‘80s. Aficionados of the era will instantly recognize their favorite trashy movies from that promising marquee pitch, but the much-maligned Cannon imprint was more than just a B-movie haven, and Trunick’s lively prose conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the studio in all its lowbrow and (relatively) highbrow glory.

Trunick’s Guide, the first volume of which covers 1980-1984, will sit comfortably on reference shelves next to Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books. The Cannon guide is structured like the latter, devoting a full chapter to a single film like the 1980 musical The Apple, or to a franchise like the Death Wish series, which followed the 1974 Paramount original that helped launch Charles Bronson’s midlife career as a vigilante action hero (anticipating Liam Neeson’s current reign in a similar subgenre).

Those two chapters are a good example of the spirited argument that runs throughout Trunick’s book: that even though the studio may be better known for B-movies that swept the Razzies—the Brooke Shields vehicle Sahara, for instance, or pick-your-Bo Derek-feature—in some ways the scruffy indie had an edge on big Hollywood players. What Cannon’s Death Wish films lacked in budget, they made up for in gritty flair; would the neon-punk vision of Death Wish III (including a terrific early role from Alex Winter) have been possible from a major studio? For that matter, The Apple, with its strange quasi-religious musical fantasy, may not be any good as cinema, but it comes from a creative fringe that would be unable to function in a conventional commercial enterprise.

Perhaps the heart of Cannon and of Trunick’s book is best summed up in the author’s admiring aside in a chapter on Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action films: “This shit is just crazy.” But, if Cannon was mostly about ninjas, breakdancers and death wishes, it wasn’t all so much fun. Trunick dedicates chapters to more respectable titles like the 1982 drama That Championship Season as well as John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, which would be one of the director’s final films, and the last one on which he had creative control. That Cassavetes found the producers of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (which is much better than its reputation) to be kindred cinematic spirits is a testament to what can be accomplished on the outskirts of the industry.

It’s hard not to like a book that, wherever possible, reproduces VHS covers with a note indicating where the tape was available for rent: it’s kind of touching to read that their copy of Body and Soul, the 1981 vehicle for Jayne and Leon Isaac Kennedy, was rented by Video Dreams in Coral Gables, Florida. Sure, The Cannon Film Guide has an element of nostalgia attached, and anybody growing up in the early ‘80s video rental landscape will eat this all up. But there are lessons here that go beyond the fringes of cinema.

There are lessons here that go beyond the fringes of cinema.
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Ninjas! Breakdancers! Death Wishes!

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