In the mid-80s, KISS’ Gene Simmons tried his hand at acting. He never really broke out, but he had plenty of fun. He was at his best playing bad guys, and while the films might be spotty, he managed to carve out a golden run of villainous ham. Here is a selection of the prime cuts.
Runaway (Michael Crichton, 1984)
In the future, robots have become a major part of everyday life: they plant crops, construct buildings and do household chores. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is a cop with the ‘Runaway’ unit – his job is to stop robots when they malfunction. His life and work become considerably more complicated when robots begin to kill their human masters. And all the evidence is leading back to one man…
Who? Dr Charles Luther. The only information we know about Luther is that he is a ‘rich kid got bad’ who has been in jail for various crimes (including robbery and murder). We never find out what his PhD is in, although it was probably the same place Dr Evil got his. He does have a variety of gadgets, including little mechanical spiders with poisoned ‘fangs’, remote flying drones and a gun which fires miniaturised heat-seeking missiles which can target a specific individual’s heat signature.
Evil plan: Luther bribes a pair of computer geniuses to manufacture computer chips that can convert any domestic robot into a killing machine. He plans to sell the chips to the highest bidders — potentially the mob or terrorist groups. As long as he gets money, he does not care what happens to his gizmos.
Best line: “That wasn’t very nice, Ramsay!” Simmons is no Olivier, but the thing that is so enjoyable about his bad guy roles is his total commitment to being the biggest prick he possibly can. So even when he gets a line as randomly mundane as this, you can rest assured that his deliver will turbo-charge it with enough bile and venom to make more seasoned hams hang their heads in shame.
Most evil moment: Reunited with traitorous girlfriend Jackie (Kirstie Alley), Luther stabs her in the back of the neck as she kisses him on the cheek. “Goodbye, darling. Sweet dreams…”
KISS references? No references that I could see. He doesn’t wear makeup, which KISS didn’t do in the mid eighties. Does that count?
Death: Luther winds up killed by his nasty little spider robots, who stab him to death and then explode. Sweet irony.
Review: The first acting role of Simmons’s career (if one does not include his role in the Oscar-worthy KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park), Luther is one of the best parts of this middling sci-fi action pic. Apparently, when Simmons met Crichton about the role, the director instructed him to stare at him without blinking for an extended period of time. Having completed this task, the role was his. This dedication certainly carries over into his performance. Simmons plays Luther like a machine, with unblinking eyes and a flat tone of voice. Even when he shows emotion, Simmons remains deliciously subdued. An ever-so-slight bounce begins to enter his voice as his scheme begins to come together. This is especially evident during his first telephone conversation with Ramsay, as the veteran cop realises that Luther has hooked into the station’s security cameras. There is not a lot to the role, but Simmons is clearly relishing every moment.
Never Too Young To Die (Gil Bettman, 1986)
After he learns of his father’s death, teenager Lance Stargrove (John Stamos) becomes involved with a mysterious femme fatale (Vanity) and discovers that his father was actually a secret agent who died while on a mission. And all the evidence is leading back to one person…
Who? Oh boy, where to start? Simmons plays Velvet von Ragner, an evil hermaphrodite who leads an army of Mad Max-style crazies. Velvet is what you get when you mix a James Bond villain with Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) from Beyond Thunderdome, and a one-off action figure from the He-Man cartoon. A relic from less enlightened times, Velvet is awesomely offensive and offensively awesome at the same time.
Evil plan: Velvet plans to reroute atomic waste to pollute a nameless city’s water supply. Why? Uh… he also needs a computer disk in Lance’s possession. He is also the son of Velvet’s arch nemesis, a secret agent played by George Lazenby, so he would like to kill him as well. Why? Uh… Publicity for Velvet’s nightclub act? In this case, it’s all up to the power of Simmons’s skills as an actor to provide the motivation for Velvet’s insane plan. And the SOB carries it off.
Best line: “Oh, what a sexy shade of purple.” Said while inspecting a simulation of toxic waste polluting water. This line really sums up Velvet’s… idiosyncratic view of the world.
Most evil moment: Velvet hushes a panicking henchman who has failed to find the computer, and then stabs him through the throat with a metallic fingernail. Simmons’s grin seals the deal.
KISS references? Two. After he has captured Lance and Danja Deering (Vanity), Velvet grabs Danja and sticks that familiar tongue down her throat — you can cheer and hurl your lunch at the same time. This is a little tangential, but Velvet’s leather outfit is actually the duds worn by Lynda Carter from a TV special she did in the early Eighties. The look was intended to replicate the costumes of KISS.
Death: Following an epic fight, Lance manages to throw Velvet off a dam.
Review: This movie is best summed up by a line from Lance’s father: “This is stupid.” Never Too Young To Die is probably one of the worst films I have ever enjoyed. And Simmons is the main reason to like it — this movie is the closest thing to a star vehicle he has ever had. There are too many great WTF moments to mention. The opening scene, in which Velvet oversees a bizarre team meeting-cum-crucifixion(?), sets the bar pretty high, and gets things off to a suitably insane start. Velvet basically lays out the plot and revs up the mob of minions by insulting them. And there is Velvet’s nightclub act, which I’m still trying to get my head around. One minute, Velvet is a famous terrorist, the next, a torch singer. The only thing missing was the Doof Warrior from Fury Road as the musical accompaniment. This leads to a great scene in which Velvet meets Lance after the show. Lance wants to bug the room, and pretends to be a fan. Velvet sees through the ruse but plays along, even trying to put the moves on our square hero. Simmons’s swagger and seductive purr are either flawless acting choices or an insight into KISS’ backstage shenanigans. Lance turns down the offer,depriving audiences of a chance to watch that famous tongue plunge down John Stamos’s throat. Ah well.
There are other highlights: the scene where he reveals that he’s been (Spoilers!) in disguise as a secret agent; the bizarre moment where he interrupts the finale to pick up a bouquet of flowers. Simmons is in a completely different movie. While Stamos and Vanity go through the motions of ‘good guy’ and ‘tangential action lady’, Simmons swaggers through every dumb scene like he’s channeling Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, throwing out one liners like a post-apocalyptic Mae West. While the movie is a testament to too much cocaine and bad life choices, it is also the showcase for Gene Simmons’ greatest acting performance.
Wanted: Dead Or Alive (Gary Sherman, 1987)
A modern remake of the western TV series that helped launch Steve McQueen to stardom, this movie stars Rutger Hauer as McQueen’s descendant Nick Randall, who has continued the family business as a professional bounty hunter. Following a bombing of a cinema in Los Angeles, his home turf, Randall is tasked with finding the people responsible. And all the evidence leads to one man…
Who? Malak Al Rahim. He’s an Arab terrorist who likes to blow up stuff. That’s literally all we know about him.
Evil plan: A bit murky. He wants revenge against bounty hunter Randall for killing his comrades in a mission nine years before. He also wants to blow stuff up. And that’s about it.
Best line: “Let me save you some confusion, Mr. Morrison, there are going to be a number of people phoning tonight to claim responsibility for what I am about to do…”
Most evil moment: Rahim blows up Randall’s boat, killing his girlfriend and his best friend in the bargain. It’s pretty bad, but also pretty by the numbers — which sums up the movie.
KISS references? Nope. This category is proving to be extremely redundant.
Death: Pretty good. Nick shoves a grenade in Rahim’s mouth and blows him up.
Review: Simmons is relatively low-key here, and does not get a lot of screen time. Even though the character is as cartoonish and two-dimensional as his previous baddie roles, he does not get enough things to do. Aside from a solid turn from Hauer in the lead, this is a pretty by-the-numbers flick, and that extends to the villains. They are just cartoonish mid-east terrorists. It does not help that Rahim runs his sleeper cell out of a falafel shop. I had to stop the movie at the point and make sure I wasn’t watching The Naked Gun. It’s a bit depressing to see Simmons in such a cookie cutter baddie role, especially after the colourful excess of Velvet von Ranger. An underwhelming finale for the Demon.
It’s too bad Simmons didn’t keep up acting. While he’s had a few credits since, the resurgence in KISS’ fortunes have meant his cinematic ambitions have taken a backseat. It’s a shame. Say what you will about the man, but he’s a decent actor. One can wonder what it would have been like if he had stuck around, taking more bad guy roles. It might have led somewhere interesting. He has a fun, ever-so-slightly outsized presence onscreen and gives his villains a dash of panache. He would have been totally at home among the Bennetts, Paynes and Raynes.
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