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Timebomb – film review

August 27, 2015

TIMEBOMB

If I’m not me – then who the hell am I?

michael biehn timebomb 1991

Written & directed by Avi Nesher. Starring: Michael Biehn, Patsy Kensit, Tracy Scoggins, Robert Culp and Richard Jordan. Year of release: 1991. Running time:     96 minutes.

A mild-mannered watch maker finds himself targeted by rogue elements within the     US intelligence services when he begins experiencing terrifying flashbacks to a violent past he never knew existed. Enlisting the help of a cognitive therapist, he begins to investigate his past, realizing he is the result of top secret mind control experiments conducted twenty years earlier. He is, in reality, a highly-trained super assassin thought killed during a covert black ops operation and now those responsible for his brainwashing want him dead.

Recently hailed as one of Israeli cinema’s most important filmmakers, Avi Nesher first came to prominence in the 1980s with his highly-regarded film Rage and Glory – which then caught the attention of legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, who invited Nesher to come to LA to write and direct Nameless (as Timebomb was then originally titled). Staying within the realm of genre, Nesher would then go on to write and direct the Drew Barrymore-starring supernatural horror Doppelganger in 1993 – before eventually returning to Israel to continue making non-genre fare.

Nesher’s life-long love for sci-fi had been instrumental in luring him to Hollywood – as fantastic cinema was, at the time, generally frowned upon in his native Israel. As Nesher revealed to journalist Sheldon Teitelbaum in Cinefantastique Magazine back in April 1991, “In Israel reality is so grim it’s almost dystopian. The country, because of its circumstance, leads such a weird and violent existence, it’s almost surreal. You don’t see in Israeli literature the playfulness of The Little Prince. In cinema, you will never have an Israeli E.T. Instead, you get this great obsession with the misery of everyday life – with the pain and hardship and struggle of making it through another day. In Israel, joy is feared because it would lead to levity. If we are all too happy, who will guard the borders? A sense of wonder becomes a very dangerous thing.”

While Timebomb could be considered a straight-forward conspiracy chase thriller in the mold of Hitchcock (North by Northwest immediately springs to mind) – there is one scene in particular which elevates it into the realm of science fiction; namely     the sequence where Eddy (Biehn) and Anna (Kensit) break into the disused Arizona sanitarium where Eddy was brainwashed and fire up the high-tech machine which did the deed. Resembling a sarcophagus filled with pink jello, inside of which the subject lays immersed; while having all sorts of nasty catheters and tubes inserted into his body (as he is subjected to disturbing holographic imagery) – the machine has been described as ‘Gigeresque’ in some quarters – but is actually closer to the foetal battery pods seen in The Matrix eight years later. Essentially a cyber-womb; it is meant to regress the subject in order to enable the shaping and imprinting of             a new identity.

According to statements Nesher made in Cinefantastique, the seeds of the idea for Timebomb sprang from the filmmaker’s own experiences serving with the Israeli Special Forces in Gaza in the early 70s – where experimental brainwashing techniques were employed by the Israeli military in order to unleash what he called ‘The Beast’ in its fighting personel (the Beast being the ability to unflinchingly kill armed women and teens without hesitation). In the same article Nesher also states that he heard “some horrendous stories” from the psychiatrist in charge (a Princeton graduate) about “similar efforts undertaken by the CIA.” And it is these stories which became the basis for Timebomb.

Much like the US-set American films of Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man) – there is undoubtedly a foreign sensibility at play here with Timebomb – as far as portraying American culture is concerned. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how this manifests, there is definitely a palpable sense that we are viewing American culture through an outsider’s lens. And much like Verhoeven’s penchant for brutal violence, Nesher doesn’t shy away from depicting brutality – particularly during scenes of hand-to-hand combat involving Biehn fending off various government assassins sent to kill him (a motel scene featuring Tracy Scoggins being particularly nasty). This may have something to do with Nesher’s past experiences in Gaza having a profound effect on his own psyche (as the Nazi occupation of Holland had affected Verhoeven as a child). Biehn himself was put through a rigorous and physically punishing (if scaled-down) version of an Israeli Defense Forces training regime in order to prepare for the role – and it shows. These hand-to-hand combat scenes are incredibly raw and realistic and are undoubtedly the film’s biggest draw.

This foreign sensibility is also evident in the film’s frank portrayal of sexuality (something usually absent from R-rated American action flicks of this ilk) with a surprisingly raunchy – if brief – sex scene between Biehn and Kensit sure to raise     a few eyebrows. Although, oddly, Nesher – by his melding of pornography with gun violence (a throwaway shot of an Uzi on a Hustler magazine; a violent shoot-out in a porno theater – while a naked woman moans on-screen) – seems to be making a statement about, well, something – that ‘something’ is never actually made clear enough to be fully understood in any meaningful way. So these moments ultimately just come across as being lurid for the sake of being lurid.

timebomb michael biehn & patsy kensit

Biehn and Kensit looking enthused on the set.

Originally Nesher had envisaged action stars Jean-Claude Van Damme or Chuck Norris in the lead, but ultimately decided upon Michael Biehn after seeing his portrayal of the psychotic Navy SEAL Lt. Coffee in James Cameron’s The Abyss. And while Biehn is indeed convincing as a highly-trained government assassin, he is less so as a mild-mannered milquetoast – being a little too goofy and over-the-top     in the opening third of the film. And sure, Patsy Kensit as Biehn’s psychiatrist love interest Anna may be a bit of a stretch for some to accept (given her youth) although I myself found no serious issue with this.

Although there have been comparisons drawn elsewhere between Timebomb and Total Recall (released the previous summer) in that both feature central characters who believe they are nobody special – only to discover they are in fact deadly assassins in the employ of nefarious agencies, I would be more inclined to think     this was less conscious copying on Nesher’s part and nothing more than just a remarkable coincidence (although, interestingly, Timebomb producer De Laurentiis did come very close himself to putting Total Recall before the cameras not long before).

Avi Nesher’s Timebomb is a fast-paced and engaging 90s conspiracy chase thriller; featuring plenty of visceral fight sequences and some truly disturbing imagery which elevates it well above the usual low-budget sci-fi action fare. While it has pretty much slipped into obscurity and would be difficult to find, it is still a fun little thriller worth seeking out.

3 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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10 Comments
  1. I think you mentioned this one to me once because of Biehn. It’s still on my Watchlist! Love him… 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Haha! Yeah – your love of Biehn was half the reason why I posted it. 😉

      • Ha! Awesome! I’m honored. 😉 I watched a horrible horrible horror movie that he made & starred in the other day. It was called The Victim. Ugh! I don’t recommend THAT one…. 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        The Victim … hang on – that’s the one he directed? I’ll have to check it out now – for curiosity’s sake. 🙂

      • No! Don’t do it!!! Lol. I recorded it off of TV & for some reason it disappeared. I was only halfway through & I’m really not bothered about tracking it down again to finish it… He’s still hot, though. 🙂

      • gregory moss permalink

        Hahaha! Oh God – not even good enough to want to finish? Must be pretty bad. 🙂

      • It is. 😦 Let me know if you suffer through it! 😉

      • gregory moss permalink

        Absolutely! You’ll be the first to know about it. 😉

  2. Good review of the relatively obscure ‘Time Bomb’. Biehn did bring his A-Game to the role and I enjoyed his performance in the film.

    I think I’ve still got a VHS copy somewhere!

    • gregory moss permalink

      I’d love to see it released in a collector’s edition … definitely a lost little gem of a film which deserves more attention. 🙂

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