Coming off the success of James Cameron’s The Terminator, just about every studio was looking to piggyback off that gold mine, and what followed was a parade of knockoff films that for the most part failed to match The Terminator in quality and in box office draw. One of those bottom-of-the-barrel knockoffs is the 1987 film Programmed To Kill, also known as The Retaliator. While in the 80’s this was a film that could be appreciated in drive-ins and later on late-night cable, nowadays the unexpected draw for this film is that it has the late Paul Walker in one of his earliest roles playing Jason, the son of the film’s lead character, Eric Mathews (Robert Ginty). Former CIA agent Eric Matthews is hired to lead a group of mercenaries to rescue a pair of kidnapped kids from a group of terrorists. In the process of performing the extraction, Samira (Sandahl Bergman), one of the terrorists, is critically wounded. For some reason, the mercenaries bring Samira with them. Samira is then brought to a group of government scientists who do experimental brain surgery and in the process turn her into a cyborg with one goal in mind, to use her to eliminate the head of the terrorist cell that she was a part of. This aspect of the film for obvious reasons has me thinking about Robocop. Even when we get to see things through her perspective, it is like a cheap imitation.
For the record, the first 40 minutes are a bit dull, but thankfully there is enough action in the sequence where the mercenaries rescue the kids to make the first half bearable. Where things do pick up is when the government first dispatches their cyborg assassin to kill the terrorist leader and her former lover. Things obviously don’t go as planned, and of course their robot assassin becomes a killing machine with one goal in mind, to eliminate all those responsible for making her what she is. The second half of this film is fun. It’s a shame the filmmakers decided to play this so seriously, because let’s face it, the film is nowhere near the quality of The Terminator or Robocop, and the result is just unintentionally silly.
At the time when this came out, Robert Ginty had a decent career in B films. His most notable success was starring in the fun revenge films The Exterminator 1 & 2. The one that really had the spotlight on them and the potential to break out and be a star was Sandahl Bergman. She had roles in Conan The Barbarian, Red Sonja, and She, and when you look at the marketing for this film, the producers had all the faith in the world that this film would be a success.
One of my biggest issues with the film has to do with some of the lighting decisions. There’s a moment where Samira is taking to the government facility for her operation, and for some reason there is this hideous red filter being used to fill the entire room. There’s no logical reason for this but for stylish reasons, but it just looks awful. There are a couple other scenes over the course of the film where you’ll see just nonsensical use of lights. There are also some silly edits over the course of the film to help “pull off” some special effects and just nonsense moments that will unintentionally get a snicker out of a viewer. I don’t entirely fault the movie for this; it is part of the B-cinema charm that makes it perfect for late-night viewing.
This film is certainly an acquired taste. If you are looking for a polished film that has cutting-edge special effects, then don’t even bother with this. But if you have a soft spot for the cinema back in the days when Roger Corman was king and filmmakers did the best they could on a low budget, then this might be a film you can have fun with.