Turbo Kid is a feature-length version of the short film T is for Turbo, submitted for inclusion in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death.1 While it didn’t make the cut, it racked up a considerable enough following online for an Australian-Canadian co-production to get underway. It’s good to know this going in and even better to see the short prior, because every conceivable problem you could come across in blowing a short, silly piece out to a full-fledged movie is sadly present, and better to cope with by knowing the reference. In buffing up the story with character arcs and world-building, writer-directors Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell distend it in a way that makes its formerly charming signature elements feel random and unsatisfying, and then shoot it in a way that weighs down their remaining impact.
The protagonist of both is a young man who happens upon a suit that turns him into a laser-blasting superhero in a post-apocalyptic 1997. In making him more relatable for a feature outing, he becomes a handsome young urchin (Munro Chambers, bearing an eerie resemblance to the kid out of The Last Starfighter) with BMX skills and an automatic entitlement to one perky love interest in the form of deranged wanderer Apple (Laurence LeBeouf). As the two scavenge for comic books, cereal and other 80s paraphernalia2 to sell to their local shopkeeper (Romano Orzari), warlord Zeus (Michael Ironside, right in his element) is running a racket on the remaining water supplies, eventually rubbing the wrong side of a local cowboy-slash-arm-wrestler (Aaron Jeffrey of McLeod’s Daughters). When Zeus’ lackey Skeletron (Edwin Wright) kidnaps Apple and puts her in the same gladiatorial death pit as Frederic, it’s down to the Kid to go Mega Man, rescue Apple and blast his way to victory as a champion of the wastelands.
It’s easy to write off a lot of the more chaotic elements of the story as a compromise to get on with the business of delivering trashy thrills, but that’s only really true for the first half-hour, which derives fun from the lavish production design and costumes (Sylvain Lemaitre and Eric Poirier respectively). Things start to sour afterwards, particularly through a tedious flashback thread that parses out the Kid and Zeus’ shared history in an aggravating slow tease, with a very predictable and weak resolution. Character moments give the Kid something of a Hero’s Journey arc in his battle to unravel Zeus’ jokingly-presented grand plan, but the irreverent tone is so pervasive that neither his romance with Apple nor his mentoring from Frederic have any heft through the cheesy dialogue. Its bloody heart lies in the extreme violence of the battle scenes, and while it produces it with lavish prosthetics and blood-sprays that will make a traditionalist swoon, they’re placed among poorly staged action beats where goons walk one-by-one up to their opponents as though asking to be slaughtered. Such simple staging works when barrelling through a four-minute anthology segment, but to raise the excitement of a ninety-minute narrative, it feels lethargic.
It doesn’t help that Jean-Philippe Bernier’s cinematography opts for a more modern, clean look than the VHS grain used previously. Going with modern tech isn’t by itself a death knell for VHS revival fare (just look at the works of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim) but it makes these particular tropes feel like a put-on. When the Kid makes a slow-mo jump on his bike to Le Matos’ pumping synth soundtrack, it feels like a hasty reminder of the movie’s selling point after scenes of half-hearted story development. The ashen Quebecois locations and matte paintings at least do a decent job of creating the setting, but with such a lack of commitment to the narrative threading these together though, it remains a jumble of concepts that simply don’t work in sync. It’s a mess that film-makers themselves persistently add more strangeness to instead of fixing, to the point of gratuitously casting a transgender prostitute (literally the performer’s credit) as background dressing. When film-makers like Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Edgar Wright have found heart in their own genre riffs, it’s hard to look past the dysfunction.
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