There’s nothing like a good-bad movie, and director George P Cosmatos was a legend in his field. After warming up with some wonderfully shonky action dramas in The Cassandra Crossing and Escape to Athena, Cosmatos pulled off something of a shock with the iconic Stallone vehicles Rambo: First Blood Part Two and Cobra which showcased his signature gift for explosions and laughable dialogue. Cosmatos made a bid for respectability with the decent Western Tombstone, before ending his career with a whimper with 1997’s Shadow Conspiracy. ‘Poorly received by critics’ says Wikipedia, but this particular critic only needs someone to hold his beer to get involved in hailing this amusingly daft film as a cult classic.
Could someone ever attempt to rule the democratic United States of America from an unelected shadow government using blackmail to further their business interests to the detriment of the US people? As if that could ever happen. And yet that’s what going on here, uncovered by presidential adviser and political genius Bobby Bishop (Charlie Sheen, yes, that political genius Charlie Sheen). When he’s not giving Jen Psaki-style addresses from the White House podium, and scrapping with journalists like the tenacious Amanda Givens (Linda Hamilton), Bishop is dashing around Washington controlling errant congressmen (Gore Vidal) and generally doing the bidding of his handler (Donald Sutherland) at the behest of the POTUS (Sam Waterston) and his scheming VP (Ben Gazzara) . If that’s not enough suspects to play with, let’s throw in Terry O’Quinn, Stephen Lang and Paul Gleeson; yes, this is a Andy Vajna production, so there’s casting director budgets to burn.
Full disclosure here, Vajna allowed me to lodge in his Century City flat for several months around the time of Shadow Conspiracy’s making, so the scope of the production gets a thumbs up. There’s car and foot chases, some Die Hard-ery around a lift shaft, and all kinds of increasingly unlikely action that swiftly obliterates any attempt at making a political point. Cosmatos seems to be aiming for some kind of 3 Days of the Condor paranoia, but the silliness of the plot development means that the surprise twists never arrive.
And yet, sometimes a bad movie can hit the spot; Republicans, Democrats, Q Anon and all sides can surely agree that this isn’t how politics works; what’s truly surprising is that this terrific cast was assembled to deliver such a crazy message. There’s plenty of scope for political thrillers these days, but Shadow Conspiracy is amusing precisely because it never lands a punch. The ancient computers and chunky phones featured here provide a clue why; it’s the internet that’s changed the landscape of the way we live. 1997 was just before that impact was felt; if you want to look back fondly on an innocent past, the supposedly sinister machinations of Shadow Conspiracy now seem as relaxingly dated as penny farthings and HRH Queen Victoria herself.