This article orginally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
“If there is one thing worse than being offered bad scripts it’s being offered none at all,” Michael Caine once noted – an admission that might explain some of the roles he’s taken on over his long and often wonderful career.
Michael Caine may have attained national treasure status now, but from the late ’70s to the middle of the ’90s, classic roles like Dr Frank Bryant in Educating Rita and Scrooge The Muppet Christmas Carol were interspersed with some – shall we say – less acclaimed movies. Yet even when the production values were awful, the script stank and the films flopped, Michael Caine’s performances often remained fascinating. This isn’t to say he was necessarily putting his heart and soul into them – he’s always been quite open about taking on certain roles because he’d earmarked the money for something – but there’s always something funny, unexpected or endearing going on.
In short, Michael Caine’s always great value, even when the films themselves have little value at all. Here’s a look at a selection of great Caine B-movie moments.
The Swarm (1978)
“We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years, but I never thought I’d see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend.”
Among a star-laden cast which included Richard Chamberlain, Slim Pickens and Olivia de Havilland, Michael Caine stood out a mile – largely because of his blustering, shock-and-awe performance. Perhaps realising that Irwin Allen’s disaster movie plot about ‘Africanised’ killer bees terrorizing America wasn’t to be taken seriously, Caine cuts a shouty swathe through the film, standing around in a roll-neck sweater and yelling fiercely at hawkish army types.
Caine plays Dr. Bradford, a macho scientist who survives a killer bee attack and tries to figure out how to prevent the citizens of America from being stung to death. Forget The Swarm‘s cheesy special effects – the real fireworks arrive in the scenes where Caine spars with Richard Widmark’s General Thaddeus Slater. Like two divas trying to out-sing each other in a music contest, they glower, pose and shout in a manner that turns over-acting into a form of cinematic performance art.
“Doctor Connors hasn’t the foggiest idea whether I’m on, off, on top of or under this complex!” Caine thunders in one scene. “If you kill the bee, you’re gonna kill the crop! If you kill the plants, you’ll kill the people! No! No, general!” he roars in another. Be still our rattling tea cups.
“I made The Swarm because my mother needed a house to live in,” Caine later confided.
Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979)
“You can take whatever you want from this ship, but these people have come a long way and all they want to do right now is get the hell out of here alive!”
Michael Caine teamed with Irwin Allen again for this soggy disaster sequel, which sees rival groups of treasure hunters picking through the capsized remains of the good ship Poseidon. Caine is more subdued here than he was in The Swarm, but he’s still great value as a tug boat captain pitted against Telly Savalas’ plutonium-hunting Dr Stefan Svevo.
The world didn’t really need a sequel to The Poseidon Adventure, and you can tell that Allen’s struggled to find a workable reason to have more Hollywood stars running around an up-turned, sinking ship. But Caine remains as watchable as he always is, even though there’s always the cloying sense that, like everybody else involved, he hasn’t chosen the role because he loves the script.
“I did it for a friend of mine,” Caine later admitted to Film Comment. “Trying to make something of the rather cardboard characters in those movies is quite difficult […] I obviously didn’t read the script for either Beyond The Poseidon Adventure or The Swarm and say, ‘This’ll get me an Academy Award’. Frankly, I thought both of these movies would be much better than they were.”
The Hand (1981)
“You think I’ve done something wrong, don’t you?”
Before Oliver Stone broke through as a director with such films as Platoon and Wall Street, he made a couple of low-budget horror films. One was Seizure (1974), the other was this exceptionally weird slab of schlock, in which Caine plays a comic book artist who loses his hand in a car accident.
Subsequently fitted with a claw-like prosthetic hand, Caine’s becomes convinced that his lost limb has a life of its own and has a tendency to kill people. I’m not sure we ever really buy the idea of Caine being a comic book artist, but he’s great where it counts – which is when his character unravels, his hair goes all unkempt and the rage flows. In fact The Hand simply wouldn’t be the same without Caine – his expressions of anguish when he loses his hand (a really disturbing moment) are thoroughly convincing, and his unhinged performance is seldom less than hypnotic.
Caine later admitted that he only agreed to star in The Hand because he wanted to put a down a down payment on a garage. It’s safe to say he earned it.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
“You passengers are all the same – complain, complain, complain… [The shark attacks his plane] Oh, shit.”
Here it is – the gold standard by which all Michael Caine B-movies must be judged. Almost brilliant in its awfulness, director Joseph Sargent’s bottom-trawling threequel is a catalogue of continuity errors, bizarre plotting, and terrible special effects. As the title implies, Jaws: The Revenge sees the surviving members of the Brody family hunted down by yet another Great White shark – Roy Schneider’s Martin Brody having wisely decided to die between sequels.
Seemingly dragged in from another ’80s film like Blame It On Rio or Sweet Liberty, Michael Caine literally flies into the scenario as garrulous pilot Hoagie Newcombe. Caine provides some much-needed charisma among the distracted-seeming cast, which includes Lorraine Gray as Ellen Brody and Mario Van Peebles as a marine biologist with a really iffy accent, and, true to form, Caine walks away with all the film’s best lines.
The actor famously missed the chance to step up on stage and collect his Oscar for Hannah And Her Sisters because he was busy shooting Jaws: The Revenge. Caine’s reaction to this lambasted, infamously tawdry sequel has since gone down in legend: “I have never seen [the film], he said, “but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
Crawling out of a crashed plane, bobbing about in the ocean, yet still delivering an endearingly fun, wry performance, Caine proves to be the life and soul of an otherwise very fishy film. Fittingly, Caine gets the film’s last, great line: “When I get back,” he says over the whine of his plane’s propellers, “remind me to tell you what happened when I flew a hundred nuns to Nairobi.”
Wait, a hundred nuns? What happened? Hoagie, come back!
On Deadly Ground (1994)
“F**k these animals. Bring me a washcloth!”
Caine delivers another fabulously angry performance as corrupt oil boss Michael Jennings in Steven Seagal’s very expensive martial arts eco-thriller. Saddled with really distracting jet-black hair – which looks alarmingly similar to Seagal’s raven do – Caine shouts and booms his way through the entire movie. Seagal may be a master of intimate, wrist-snapping mayhem, but Caine could probably defeat Seagal just by fixing him with his sleepy eyes and bellowing at a ferocious volume.
It’s possible that Caine channelled some of his misery into his performance as Jennings, since he wasn’t too happy about the ice-cold Alaska location shoot.
“…I got desperate to the point that I accepted a picture in Alaska with Steven Seagal, the martial arts expert,” Caine recalled. “The movie was called On Deadly Ground and the title was to prove apt. Although Steven and the rest of the team were great to work with, I had broken one of the cardinal rules of bad movies: if you’re going to do a bad movie, at least do it in a great location. Here I was, doing a movie where the work was freezing my brain and the weather was freezing my arse.”
On Deadly Ground was widely panned for Steven Seagal’s leaden direction and self-indulgent environmentalist speeches. But one or two moments are absolute comedy gold. Take the above sequence, for example, which includes an unexpected cameo from Irvin “The Empire Strikes Back“ Kershner as the director of an oil commercial. Seemingly channelling a bit of his Ebenezer Scrooge role in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Caine’s ornery bad guy tries to act all caring and avuncular for the cameras, before returning to his usual sour self as soon as someone yells “Cut”.
“I’ve made an awful lot of films,” Caine once observed, “and a lot of awful films.” Yeah, but we can’t help but love them anyway.