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:: Sunday, November 02, 2003 ::

Radar Men from the Moon

Sometimes, you just can't keep a good flying rocket suit down. In 1949, Republic Pictures released "King of the Rocket Men, a twelve part serial revolving around the adventures of a rocket-powered hero and an evil scientist. Pretty scary stuff, huh kids? Said rocket suit would find its way into the 1952 Leonard Nimoy star showcase "Zombies of the Stratosphere." But before that would come to pass, the same flying suit would serve as the inspiration and introduction of one of Hollywood's most endearing and controversial JATO heroes: Commando Cody, in "Radar Men from the Moon" (Trailer).

Introduced to us in this film, Commando Cody (George Wallace) remains to his fans an enigma. He's a hero in the mold of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: he brooks no doubts, he suffers no fools and he's always concerned about the hazards posed by ray-guns -- especially the atomic kind.

As the first of the Commando Cody serials, "Radar Men from the Moon" wastes none of its precious 167 minutes establishing the origin of our hero. After all, the film serial needs time to introduce eleven cliffhangers, and resolve them every subsequent week with an altered version of events. Because the film is necessarily redundant, it can spare little time for luxuries such as character development or subplots. Commando Cody is introduced as a full-fledged scientist/superhero. He has no need for a secret identity. Everybody knows who he is -- his fellow scientists, his contact from the government, his supermarket checkout clerk and his girlfriend all refer to him by his nomme de Hero. I bet you wish you had a cool name like that.

The film opens with a series of random attacks. Derricks, bridges, trains and office buildings explode without warning.

Commando Cody's secretary Joan (Aline Townsend) wonders whether these events might be connected. Commando Cody has a theory -- but as he admits, it's only a guess: Moon men might be bombarding the Earth with atomic rays. Really, what else could it be?

Actually, the rays originate from Earth. The Moon is attacking our planet, but being budget conscious, they contract the work out to a couple of mobsters. Armed with an atomic ray-gun, they are charged with disrupting America's potential to repel a Lunar invasion.

When Cody learns of the latest attack, he dons his JATO long johns and speeds to the site.

Cody spots the mafia and engages them with his trusty six-shooter. When the mob boys run out of ammo, they flee, leaving Cody with an odd assortment of booty: a truck and its ray-gun.

Cody recovers the ray-gun and brings it back to the lab for analysis. Oh it's definitely lunar in origin, but before Cody and his assistant Ted (William Bakewell) can scratch the surface, the mob strikes back. And forthwith is the first of many, many fifties fistfights in the film. It doesn't get any better than that.

Back on the Moon, Overlord Retik (Roy Barcroft) checks in with his Earthbound saboteur Krog (Peter Brocco). While he's pleased with the initial results, Retik wants more results: more chaos, more anarchy and more terror. Nothing must interfere with the impending lunar invasion. Krog promises his best efforts, but he's running low on cash (and that's actually a plot element, really).

Meanwhile, Cody and his crew prepare their Flash Gordon Rocket for a trip to the moon. The California Highway Patrol arrives to send our heroes off. But didn't they park in an unfortunate position?

As the crew prepares for blast-off, Commando Cody uncorks something you just can't say these days. Joan takes the comment in stride, turning it into a joke. At least I hope she did. And with that, it's rocket day!

This is what low-budget science fiction is all about. Check out Commando Cody and his crew fakin' the Gees in their roller chairs,

Worth the price of admission, is it not?

Upon landing, Cody straps on the rocket pack and goes scouting around for baddies. Check out the lunar regolith.

It looks awfully familiar, doesn't it?

Commando Cody locates a lunar castle and sneaks inside. There he confronts evil Retik, and compliments him on his English.

Retik reveals that the Moon is slowly running out of oxygen. Even the radar men must wear spacesuits outdoors. With Luna dying, Retik plans to take over the Earth build a new castle, empire, secret army -- pretty standard stuff. Cody scoffs at the notion, but Retik has an ace up his sleeve.

Is there anything atomic weapons can't do?

Well for starters, they can't kill Commando Cody. When our hero initiates another fifties fistfight, Retik decides to settle the outcome with his atomic pistol (!) in an enclosed room (!!). He keeps missing, and the pistol is very difficult to reload. As you would expect with atomic weapons -- it's probably an OSHA reg or something. Anyway, Retick finally manages to make a lucky shot and (KABLAMM!) that's it for our hero.

Or is it?

Chapter two begins with a brief recap of the fistfight. With the help of some additional footage, we see that Cody was hiding behind a thick object and didn't get exploded to bits. With Retik's lair in shmbles, Cody escapes the lunar castle and returns to his rocket.

Cody and crew argue over what course of action they should take. Since they're on a mission from the U.S. Government to determine whether there's an evil conspiracy on the Moon, some say they should return home and report. Cody's for a direct assault, but gets reminded that they didn't bring the right tools for the job. Is there a better way?

You bet: Cody returns to the castle with a cylinder of poison gas. Attaching it to a vent (?), he douses the radar men with RAID. Not too heroic, but it seems to work.

Cody sneaks back into Retik's lair and steals an atomic ray gun. Earth's going to need a few it if has any chance of repelling the radar men.

Because Cody didn't bring enough poison gas, the radar men are slowly reviving. Retik clambers to his desk and orders a moon patrol to give chase and recover the weapon.

Patrol 6 is on the case, in their lunar tank with its own atomic ray gun.

Check out Patrol 6's spacesuits. We've seen them before, and we'll be seeing them again.

Cody and his space-suited assistant retreat to the cover of a moon cave. Blocked by boulders, the tank cannot follow. Instead, Patrol 6 uses their atomic ray gun to melt the mountain surface above the cave, sealing the entrance and sending a wave of lava cascading down to our heroes. Is this the end?

Nope. Chapter three begins as Cody discovers another exit. He and his assistant squeeze out of the cave to safety. Cody flies off, executes a dog leg and returns to deliver a surprise attack upon Patrol 6.

Chucking the hapless radar men over a convenient cliff, Cody retrieves the ray gun and heads back to his rocketship. As he and the crew blast off, Retik orders his anti-aircraft atomic ray guns into action. Things get a bit dicey, but Hank the pilot pulls off their escape. Now, he must successfully navigate all those fluffy-white space clouds to make it back to Earth.

As our heroes approach home, their peril only increases. Retik's phoned ahead, ordering the mob to ambush the landing site (I know: just accept it and move on).

Fortunately, Cody's phoned ahead too: he asks the police to meet him when he touches down. They show up, bringing their high-tech fifties cell phones.

Naturally, the parties engage in a good old gun battle. It's a draw, and when the mob boys run low on bullets they jump into their getaway car and speed off. By the way, they've got bombs in the trunk. They set one on a timed fuse at the side of a bridge. When Cody and his friends cross that bridge...

Oh my, it's really over for our heroes. The end.

Or is it?

Chapter four begins with an extra shot showing Cody and pals jumping out of their doomed car. They hitch a ride back to Cody Labs and begin to analyze their new atomic ray gun.

Meanwhile, the radar men aren't just going to sit around and let Cody reverse engineer their secret weapon. Retik's Earthbound henchman Krog (Peter Brocco) wants to attack immediately. But the mob's not having any of that. They still haven't been paid for their last attacks on Cody labs. Poor Krog is running low on moon gems, so he decides to self-finance his operation.

Friends, I think this is the high point of the whole serial. I'm willing to accept that the radar men would send one man (Krog) to invade the Earth. I'm also willing to accept that he would recruit local muscle. But the notion that the radar men would underfund their operator and try to take over the Earth, one bank at a time is so deliriously goofy, you just have to smack your forehead in astonishment. Don't you wish they still made films like this today?

After a series of bank robberies (and resultant car chases), Krog is flush with cash and confident enough to stage another attack on Cody labs. The mobsters kidnap Joan and fly her to their interrogation center. Commando Cody straps on his trusty rocket pack and chases the enemy plane.

Realizing he can't outrun a rocket man, the mob pilot sabotages his controls, straps on his parachute and bails out. Poor Joan (who is unconscious) is certain to die as the plane prepares to auger in. With only seconds to spare, Command Cody catches up to the plane and tries to rescue his friend. But will they make it?

Nope, the plane crashes and bursts into flame. The end.

Chapter five begins with an additional shot of Joan bailing out with her own parachute (whew!).

Not much happens in chapter five. There's another aerial chase and a car chase, in which a hijacked ambulance hurtles toward Cody's car. The two vehicles collide and careen over the edge of a cliff. Nobody could survive that, right?

At the beginning of Chapter six we learn that Cody and his friend were able to bail out just seconds before the collision. All these chases might be interesting if they advanced the plot. Sadly they do not, and they're getting a bit tiresome.

Retik agrees with this reviewer, and decides to kick the conflict up a notch.

Krog unveils one of his smaller a-bombs and orders the mob to fly out and attack a dormant volcano. Mt. Alta erupts and causes all kinds of natural disasters (and several minutes of stock footage).

Cody and Ted head to the airport to track down the bomber, Their investigations lead them to Al's Cafe, where they get into another fistfight with the mob.

The mobsters escape in their getaway car (is there any other type of mob car?). Rather than flee, they draw Cody into a cliff-side ambush. While one of the mobsters pretends to surrender, the other sneaks up behind Commando Cody with a large rock. He strikes, sending our hero over the edge.

Chapter seven begins with a resolution of the series' lamest cliff-hanger. Slamming a rock into our hero's head and knocking him off the cliff won't work: Cody wears a brass helmet and rocket pack. He's invulnerable to exactly this kind of attack.

With a twist of the knob, Cody rescues himself. Woozy, he retreats to Cody Labs.

With Cody temporarily out of action, the radar men are free to carry out their master plan: a series of (pick a better word) terrorist attacks will sow confusion and reduce the military strength we'll need to fend off the lunar invasion fleet. But how to execute the plan? That atomic ray-gun is bleeding obvious, and will attract the attention of the authorities. The mobsters cleverly camouflage the back of a truck with fake crates. This false front (or rather false back) can open up to reveal the ray-gun, or just as easily conceal it.

With their stealth truck, the mobsters initiate the campaign. Soon the newswires are reporting multiple atomic ray-gun attacks.

Commando Cody proposes an interesting counter-strategy.

Ted loads up his own plane with "light bombs." Apparently, he can do that because he's a friend of Cody. While Ted loiters around, Cody scouts around for ray-guns. If all goes well, he'll be able to act as a forward aerial controller (FAC), guiding Ted's bomber to its target.

The mobsters in their truck spot Cody and fire on him. Cody retreats to the safety of Ted's plane. With Ted at the controls, Cody's free to drop bomb after bomb on the villainous mobsters. But the enemy's packing an atomic ray-gun in the back, and they're not afraid to use it.

POW! A direct hit to Ted's plane. The fuel and bombs detonate and this really, really is the end for Cody and Ted.

Chapter eight begins with an additional shot of our heroes exiting their aircraft seconds before its demise. It's almost as if the editors are cheating.

Cody and Ted hitch a ride back to Cody Labs where they make a breakthrough on the atomic ray-gun front. While the gun itself is easy to duplicate, it requires Lunarium to function. Guess where you can find that element?

Commando Cody and his pals make another trip to the moon. I'm sad to report that the serial depicts the trip using film recycled from the earlier trip.

Cody scouts around until he spies a solitary radar man out in the open and wearing a Destination Moon space suit. Cody engages the hapless fellow in a lunar fistfight. Subdued, the radar man is brought to Cody's rocketship. Cody switches spacesuits with the radar man.

Infiltrating the Moon Castle, Cody steals a box of Lunarium and drags it to the surface. There, he and Ted make their way back to the rocketship. On the way, they're attacked by another Moon Tank. Two guys versus a tank. Guess who wins?

The good thing about films like these is that you can stage a fistfight pretty much anywhere. Cody and Ted force their way through the roof hatch and go a-brawlin'. Of course they win, but it might just be a pyrrhic victory: Cody's air hose comes dislodged, and in the cramped confines of the Moon Tank, he can't reach back to plug it in. Exposed to the lunar vacuum, he's a goner for sure.

Chapter nine shows Ted helpfully reattaching Cody's air hose. Whew!

Cody and Ted return to the rocketship and make plans to return to Earth. Pilot Hank pushes the blast-off button and they're on their way. Suddenly their prisoner radar man attacks!

The fistfight disrupts Hank's concentration and sends the rocket hurtling through a twisty Moon Canyon. Meanwhile, Retik's got his anti-aircraft atomic ray-guns trained on the craft. This is real peril! This calls for heroics, and Commando Cody does not disappoint.

With the ship out of danger, Cody and friends transit the Space Clouds and land safely at home. With their supply of Lunarium, they're ready to reload their stolen atomic ray-gun -- and even start manufacturing more. Now Earth has a plan and a fighting chance to defeat the Moon. But as with any plan, the enemy gets a vote.

Chapter ten begins by resolving a lame cliff-hanger (mob tries to bury Cody under rocks). Frustrated, they try to turn the tables on Cody by attacking him at his Lab with one of his own tricks.

Introducing poison gas into Cody Labs, the mob avenges the radar men who are still smarting from a similar attack back in chapter two. The mob takes the trick further -- locking Cody and Joan inside their lab and leaving them with no escape from the deadly fumes. Joan collapses and Cody struggles for breath before expiring. Now he really is dead, and we saw him die onscreen. He can't possible be around for the next installment, can he?

Chapter eleven begins with a little deus ex machina. It's a good thing the cops were just around the corner. Otherwise they'd have no time to bust down the door before Cody and Joan succumb to the poison gas.

Shaking off the cobwebs, Joan and Cody jump into a police car to pursue the mobsters. Cody takes a moment to show off his egalitarian side. Or maybe he likes to shoot two-handed.

In the ensuing gun battle, one of the police's tear-gas canisters goes off and floods Joan and Cody's car with caustic vapors. Realizing the chase must end right here and right now, Joan rams the mobsters' car and sends both vehicles screeching to the curb. The police arrive to cordon off the crash scene. Despite his heroic protestations, Cody and Joan are arrested along with the mobsters.

Ted goes down to precinct headquarters and bails out our heroes (nice touch!). Cody hangs around, hoping to track the mobsters back to their secret lair. Sure enough, they post bond (with stolen bank money) and drive home, unaware they're being tracked from above.

Rather than wait for reinforcements, Cody barges in and starts another brawl (I've lost count of the fistfights on this film). Even though the fight's three against one, Cody wins -- dispatching one of the mobsters against a clich├ęd high-voltage sparkling machine. But wait: Cody's caught in the lethal blast of electricity. We see it strike him. Surely no man could withstand all that energy. We see him slump to the ground. Cody's dead for sure, and the film really means it this time!

Chapter twelve begins as Retik arrives on Earth. He's the vanguard of his vast lunar invasion fleet. Sure, we never get to see just how vast that fleet really is, but let's assume it's really, really vast.

While Retik and Krog finish the final details of their invasion plan, the mob sets out to clean out what's left of Cody labs. Meanwhile a certain heroic, left-for-dead figure arises. Cody's back on his feet and ready to fight to save the Earth. He races back to Cody Labs to rescue his friends.

At the lab, Cody receives an important phone call. Remember Al's Cafe? It's the place the mobsters like to hang out. Cody once had a fistfight there. The bartender (Ted Thorpe) promised he'd call if the mob ever came back. Not even mobsters like to fistfight on an empty stomach, so here they are enjoying their vittles.

With guns drawn, Cody and Ted enter Al's Cafe. Even though they are armed, Cody and Ted take a moment to enjoy their last fistfight of the film. And their last car chase. The fleeing mobsters fail to properly negotiate a dead-man's curve and dive to their doom.

With the mob defeated, Cody and Ted race to the evil hideout to confront the radar men. There, Krog sacrifices his life in the defense of Retik. Sensing that not even his vast invasion fleet can save him, Retik leaps into his Moon Rocket and blasts off.

Will Retik escape? Will there be a sequel to this serial?

Answers: No and Yes. Because Cody has both an atomic ray-gun and Lunarium, he's able to get a few shots off in the direction of Retik's rocketship. One of the blasts connects.

No more Retik (and presumably no Lunar invasion). But there would be a sequel: believe it or not, Republic Pictures re-edited this serial into a TV show (with a new Commando Cody). Cody-mania swept the nation. I guess you had to be there.

With the enemy vanquished, and with the Earth safe from the menacing Moon, Cody and friends return to the lab. There a grateful government agent congratulates them for their service to their country. Cody takes the opportunity to pitch a proposal for a government grant. He demonstrates a model of his latest design in rocketships.

Said model rocket careens around the room before exiting via a conveniently open window. Back to the drawing board for Cody, and much merriment for the others and for the audience. The end.

Radar Men from the Moon is a challenge for today's audience. Nobody believes in Moon Monsters anymore, so our willingness to suspend disbelief is not as forthcoming as it would be for a modern film. Furthermore for a space adventure, the serial spends far too much time on Earth as our heroes fight with their fists, chase with their cars and drone through their dialogue.

Even in its day, Radar Men from the Moon represented the last gasp of a dying art. One of the last Hollywood serials, it fought and lost a battle against television. With entertainment in one's living room, who wanted to bother to go to the theater every week for twelve weeks, just to see whether Cody would save the day?

Perhaps Radar Men from the Moon is best appreciated as an artifact of history. With its dodecahedral structure, it is quite unlike both conventional films and series television. Its closest contemporary analogs are "Doctor Who," and "Twenty Four." But beyond those programs there is nothing else to compare to a bona fide, old-fashioned movie serial.

Radar Men from the Moon demands to be viewed on its own terms. It's nearly three hours of stock footage, film recycled from other serials and endless fistfights. Somewhere in there is a stunning, interstellar space opera struggling to break free. Its twelve turgid chapters fail to rise above even pedestrian cops-and-robbers fare. And frankly, I found the film a bit of a chore.

Two ears down
:: Anna 4:16 PM [+] ::

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