Brenda Starr (1989)

Pretty much a vanity project, this was made in 1986, released first in Japan in 1989, briefly seen in the US in 1992 and relegated in the UK to obscuro video and late-night Channel 5. An adaptation of a 1940s comic strip about a Lois Lane-style girl reporter, which had already spun off a Columbia serial and a Jill St John TV pilot, Brenda Starr vaguely prefigures the approach of Beatty's Dick Tracy and even Last Action Hero (or Cool World) as Mike Randall (Tony Peck), the cartoonist who draws Starr's strip, is sucked into her world and tags along on a typical adventure in Puerto Rico and Brazil on the trail of ex-Nazi Von Kreutzer (Henry Gibson), inventor of a miraculous fuel additive (which turns out to be fake), competing with one-eyed man of mystery Basil St John (Timothy Dalton) for the affections of the determined, dressy and (in this outing) rather unlikable heroine (Brooke Shields). A lot of good comic actors are thrown away: Diana Scarwid as a bitchy rival reporter, Jeffrey Tambor as a smitten Soviet spymaster, Charles Durning as the fatherly editor, Kathleen Wilhoite as the chain-smoking sidekick, Ed Nelson as a piano-playing President Truman.

It's mostly mild slapstick, with Brenda making a running joke of donning ever more outlandish and becoming outfits (there's a Carmen Miranda theme) as she blunders from peril to peril, waterskis on crocodiles, avoids piranha, dangles from a flying trapeze, is tied up and escapes, or hauls Mike out of a snakepit with her taupe nylons. Creepshow-style comic panel inserts replace establishing shots and it's all rather desperate, without even the periodic charm that occasionally lights up such pulp magazine / comic strip disappointments as Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, The Shadow or The Phantom. There's a snide attempt to cope with the thinness of Brenda's world by the intervention of its creator, who is frustrated because he can't get his heroine to say 'shit' and that no one is allowed to have a belly button (an effect not shown), but this comes off as smart-alecky. Besides, the world here is very much that of 80s knockabout silliness (cf: Jake Speed or Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous) rather than an authentic alternate reality on pulp lines. Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; shot (dully) by Freddie Francis.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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