The lesson I take from all this? Cutting out author inserts makes everything better.

I’ve been on a weird 90s Chicago kick recently, and gobbled down two films that put that time and place lovingly on display, so I thought I’d share them all with you to fill my article quota before April kicks off. Here ya go!

The Relic (1997)

Watching this after I threw away the source material angrily in disgust, the film version of Relic thankfully excises the book’s central flaw and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Reading the Relic novel is sort of like watching one of the poorer SNL sketch spinoff movies, where about half-an-hour in you suddenly realize “Oh my god… they don’t have a movie!” There’s a maybe 200-page plot crammed into an almost 500-page book, and so to pad out pages Preston and Child will just repeat information over and over again.

So, to give an example, first we’ll have a scene where some schmuck wanders off and gets killed. Then we’ll have a scene where someone finds the body and goes “Omigod! Someone got killed!” Then we’ll have a scene where the police are cordoning off the crime scene and gabbing to one another “Hey, you see that someone got killed? Poor schmuck.” Then we’ll have a scene where the rubberneckers are gabbing “Did you hear? Someone got killed!” Then we’ll have a scene where the investigator characters show up and discuss how someone got killed. Then we’ll start banging our heads against the table as we realize that about a hundred pages have passed and nothing has been established that we didn’t already know from the god-damn back cover.

The Relic movie, meanwhile, knows what you’re here for, and delivers it quickly. It understands that there’s no real way to play coy with the identity of the killer when it literally eats people’s brains, and instead of teasing you with the question “Could this killer be more than just a mortal man?” it instead teases you with the questions of how the monster works and how it can be defeated. In essence, The Relic is simply a more gruesome version of the classic Base Under Siege story format, with the base being the Field Museum and the main character who figures out how to kill the monster even being a doctor!

A funny side note about that doctor character, Margo Green, actually, before we continue. One of the ways you can tell this movie was made in the 90s is how they do everything possible to make her actress, Penelope Ann Miller, look and act like Dana Scully from The X-Files. It’s honestly kind of funny, like seeing Billy Connolly trying to be John Cleese in the second Garfield movie, and makes me wonder if someone in the production thought they could draw in X-Files fans to see The Relic by dangling a bargain bin Scully in front of them. If that’s the case though, it didn’t work. The movie bombed at the box office, and doesn’t seem to have even gotten a cult following, which I think is a shame. Yeah, it’s not high art, but it’s an entirely serviceable supernatural thriller, which is exactly my shit.

Of course, there is the unfortunate element of the movie where the monster comes from those strange and evil foreign parts, that whole positioning of foreignness with scary dangerousness. But the movie tries to present as nuanced and sympathetic a portrayal of the native tribespeople as they can with the given premise. Much emphasis is put on the fact that the supposedly enlightened White folks who sneer at the superstitions of primitive cultures have just as many silly superstitions of their own, with their black cats and stepping under ladders and good luck charms and whatnot. Indeed, without giving away too many spoilers, it’s this exact disdain towards foreign superstitions that leads to the killings happening, as the tribespeople left clear contingency plans for the monster that our protagonists end up torching through their ignorance.

Also, the film excises the character of Smithback, whose main character trait seems to be bitching and moaning about fatuous superiors, generally being a dick to his co-workers, and groaning about political correctness gone mad (Why we can’t even say ooga-booga anymore when talking about those ignorant savages in huts!) and who the book for some inexplicable reason wants us to like (he even hooks up with Margo at the end). So that helps.

Sidenote here, but I can’t help but notice that Smithback’s job is very similar to the one Douglas Preston himself had at the American Museum of Natural History, before his novels with Lee Child took off. Given how a good chunk of the Relic novel is spent showcasing petty office politics (with Smithback being the clearly wronged party whose avant-garde ideas are stifled by stuffy superiors), I can’t help but wonder how many of the museum employees are thinly disguised strawmen versions of Preston’s former coworkers.

But now I’m back to complaining about the book I don’t like, as opposed to the movie I did like, and I’m honestly surprised at how much I liked The Relic. I’d put it up there with the 80s Blob movie as smarter-than-average b-movie horror, and I hope that someday The Relic can obtain the same devoted cult following.

Gunsmith Cats (1995)

As with Relic, I watched this after also putting aside the source material, though the reasons for my distaste this time around had nothing to do with padding. Gunsmith Cats, in both manga and anime form, is tightly paced and filled with amazing action. No, there’s only one serious issue I have with Cats, and it’s the character of Minnie May.

And see, I’d been warned about Minnie May. Chris Sims had told me all about Minnie May. I went in knowing what to expect with Minnie May. But god-damn, I fucking hate that aspect of the Gunsmith Cats manga. It’s the elephant in the room that is simply too big to ignore. And to make it even worse, there’s an aspect of Minnie May that Chris Sims failed to warn me about.

So, yes, May is only 17, but she looks like she’s 13, despite being one of those cute and constantly horny character archetypes that Men Writing Women love so much. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, is 35, more than twice her age. And then, just to make you groan even more loudly, May and her beau first started fucking when she was 13 and working as a prostitute. Sure. Great. God just kill me.

But then, the cherry on top, the thing Chris didn’t tell me about, the boyfriend’s name is Ken! Y’know, like Kenichi Sonoda, the author of Gunsmith Cats! And wouldn’t you know it, he’s about the same age Sonoda was when he wrote Cats. Boy oh boy, what a… what a coincidence, that! [screams]

So, yeah.

The thing is though, I first became interested in reading Gunsmith Cats after watching the OVA six or so years ago. I remember quite enjoying that, and so after finding myself unable to finish the manga, I wondered if the OVA still held up.

Thankfully, just as with The Relic, the worst aspects of the source material here are excised so that you only get the good stuff: fast cars, big booms, and gals with guns. And with it all wrapped up in that 90s anime aesthetic, oof! [chef’s kiss]

Ken is nowhere to be seen, save as an old photograph May treasures and a sex dream she has, and while Rally makes a crack about May liking much older men, May’s own age is left ambiguous, so you could easily just pretend that she’s in her early to mid twenties, which would still be a bit eyebrow-raising, but certainly a lot better than a grown man starting a “relationship” with an honest-to-God child. Also, while normally giving characters adaptational curves is simply there for fanservice, in this case I’m actually quite grateful for its presence, since it makes May appear like someone who is cute and petite but still clearly an adult woman, as opposed to someone stuck in perpetual pubescence like in the manga [shudders].

As for the plot, it’s nothing special. Just fast cars, big booms, and gals with guns. But if you’re into that, and lord knows I am, it’s one hell of a fun ride, and without that god-damn elephant in the backseat, I can heartily recommend it. Mind you, the OVA also has a “Gun control is secretly evil!” message at the end, which… I mean, yeah, I would kind of expect something like that from something titled Gunsmith Cats. It’s not exactly shocking to hear such a message, especially if it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the then-still-recent passage of new gun control laws under the Clinton administration. But in this day and age, when mass shootings of elementary school children has become such an accepted part of American life we’ve all decided to just shrug our shoulders at it, messages of firearm libertarianism become increasingly hard for me to swallow.

Still, if you’re looking for a fun anime romp, it can’t hurt you to try Gunsmith Cats. And for that matter, why not watch The Relic right after, for a 90s Chicago double feature? Or, I dunno, watch Relic, then Cats. I’m not quite sure which one should go first.


Let the Dream Stay a Dream


Marlowe’s Last Bow


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