Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mazes and Monsters

Tom Hanks. Hollywood’s Mr Nice. Housewives favourite actor. The mother’s choice. Your man from that film with the beach ball and the island, Fed-Ex Goes To Maui I think it was called. The man drips with synonyms these days, pockets overflowing with awards and nominations, newspaper blurbs about the tilt of his head in a new cinematic visitation.

In two and half decades Hanks has levitated to the summits of Hollywood stardom, receiving upwards of twenty million dollars per flick. Impressive manoeuvres you might say. Look at him there in that Da Vinci Code caper, silly hair and a face of expanding girth, but yet he still gets the zeroes. I have yet to see it, but I can (and will) assume that his symbological prancings are quite easily overshadowed by the presence of the glorious Audrey Tautou.

Let’s not hold that against him. It’s automatically disregarded as anything worth commentary anyway. We all know that which stands proud atop the Hanks filmography. Why it’s his 1989 masterpiece The Burbs, Joe Dante’s farcical take on suburban life, which has a luminous cast attempting to find out whether their new neighbours are horrific flesh-manglers. Are they? Maybe. Maybe not. Go watch it.

That would be a journey deep into the annals; a place full of tombs and trenches, perhaps even Corey Feldman’s rotting cadaver would be unearthed. But no, I want to go a little further, to a place not of tombs and trenches, but of Mazes and Monsters.

The 1982 TV movie of the aforementioned name sits as the first film to showcase Hanks straddling the apex of the cast list. His first opportunity to break from minor TV roles and demonstrate his youthful acting vigour. Hanks is Robbie, a young afro-ed teen, who arrives at a new college, having been banished from his last educational institute. Turns out a number of his peers are into some sort of game, and are looking for a fellow student to partake in their group playings. This game goes by the name of Mazes and Monsters, it is a role-playing board game of the Dungeons & Dragons variety. They are all seasoned players and luckily Hanks is himself a ‘ninth level’ player. Thank fuck for that.

A few words about the game. The primary action occurs on a board to which the main characters position themselves around. The board will be a patterned square of cardboard featuring outcroppings of cards and so on. It’s a difficult image to conjure I admit, this was in the bygone days before the Counter-strikes and Dragon Quests were born and captured the minds and reflexes of adolescents everywhere. Each individual has their own in-game character, for example Robbie is Pardue, an ecclesiastical wizard type.

So they all gather together and break out the dice. Hanks even forms a romantic connection with the female of the group, meeting her for the first time at a dorm shindig brimming with some sort of Yann Tiersen cast-off music. They enjoy montages out in the park, and horrible musical interludes intertwined with music too bad for even the Beaches soundtrack. Watch as they walk amorously through the rain, like a tacky Manhattan. Oh yeah, the analogies are spewing out of it.

Eventually one of the quartet of gaming geeks decides that things are not interesting enough, and so takes the flock out to a local cave to play for real. Well, as real as a plastic skeleton can be. But it’s while here that Robbie has some sort of mental collapse and is confronted with a beast I assume is meant to be an authentic creature of evil. Wonderful TV movie, wonderful TV movie production values.

This episode has a rupturing effect on Robbie’s mind, and he begins to act as his in-game character constantly, even in those moments when the dice is locked safely away. Following some hallucinations where a mysterious robed figure addresses him from the end of a long tunnel, he disappears from campus. The film ends with a twenty minute scene where Robbie wanders around New York looking for the World Trade Centre, while his friends wander around New York looking for Robbie. It’s exhilarating stuff.

The game acts as a kind of social tool in the film. Each of the four central characters has an unsettled or disruptive family life (disappointed parents, lack of parents/siblings etc), but the game allows them to form a connection, a conclave of likeminded people. It acts as an instrument for self-identification, self-definition, to create oneself, to be individual but also to be loved and appreciated. The film coalesces into this quasi-coming-of-age drama at its finale; it attempts to show the reality behind the game, the personalities and their evolution to adulthood. To be honest, I was really more interested in Hanks’ great array of jumpers, those fantastic woollen patterns really leaped from the frame.

In essence the film fluctuates between comedy, fantasy and drama too awkwardly. It lumbers around blindly in the maze of genres it has built around itself. It’s a shame too because it includes favourable references to Tolkien and Casablanca, plus intermittent snippets of reasonable dialogue. But alas it pales in comparison to the demographically-similar films to materialise later that decade, for instance Little Monsters and The Wizard.

Hanks was adequate overall. I will give him some doubt bearing in mind he was absent from a large chunk of the flick, assumed to be lying dead at the bottom of some catacomb. What it doesn’t do is grapple with The Burbs. His magnum opus remains where it is. But if I had a choice between seeing Hanks as Robert Langdon or Hanks reprising his role as Robbie Wheeling in a big-budget sequel to Mazes and Monsters, this time set in a hallowed-out China, I know what I’d choose.


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