“Unmasking the Idol” isn’t just an action movie, it’s an action-figure movie. For all its attempts to crib its formula from the James Bond series, playboy-ninja-secret agent Duncan Jax, his friends, and his enemies all feel like they were plucked off the shelves at Toys R Us, complete with hot-air balloon accessories and secret throne room playset. It’s a movie pitched at the level of a Saturday-morning cartoon and proudly wears its stupidity on its sleeve. If kung-fu baboons, piranha pits, and submarine explosions sound like a good time to you, “Unmasking the Idol” is where you need to be.
The experience of watching “Unmasking the Idol” is a lot like having an eight-year-old dump out his toy box and recreate the action movie his parents let him stay up late to watch on TV. The script is so breathless in moving from item to item on its spy-movie shopping list that there’s hardly any time to notice that none of it has any weight. Things happen because they need to happen to move the plot along and get to the next moment.
The movie’s “shoot first, ask questions never” philosophy is embodied in its hero, Duncan Jax. He’s either a secret agent or a mercenary who works for Star, an M-like figure whose own affiliations are never revealed. All we’re allowed to know is that they oppose the movie’s Bad Guys, which makes them the Good Guys by default. Duncan Jax is played by Ian Hunter, for whom this movie and its sequel are his entire acting career. His primary acting technique is to lock his head and neck into one position and hold it the entire time the camera is on him. This, combined with the fact that he doesn’t seem to blink and his hard-to-place aristocratic accent, makes him seem very uncomfortable at all times. Sean Connery gave James Bond his cool unflappability, but Duncan Jax looks like he’s always bracing himself for a slap across the face.
In true Bond-wannabe fashion, Jax strikes up a flirtatious conversation with a mysterious Asian woman – named China, of all things – before taking her to bed. But, because this movie has the brain of an eight-year-old, that flirtation starts with China asking, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Bucking with tradition, however, is China’s wardrobe for this scene, which consists of a formal pants suit instead of the expected slinky cocktail dress or evening gown that Bond Girls favor. It has the effect of making her seem more like Jax’s peer than a plaything, which would be an interesting subversion of the typical Bond dynamic.
But don’t get the idea that “Unmasking the Idol” is going to turn out to be a secretly-smart genre deconstruction, because soon after that we meet Jax’s baboon sidekick. Boon the Baboon wears a karate outfit and is skilled at making the “up yours” gesture, which happens a lot throughout the rest of the movie.
Jax’s mission is to infiltrate an island fortress called Devil’s Crown and steal an enormous amount of gold from inside before the evil Scarlet Leader can use that gold to buy nuclear warheads and – somehow – start World War III. Jax isn’t interested at all in preventing World War III until Star mentions that the Scarlet Leader’s partner in this plot is the Baron, also known as Goldtooth. The Baron is the man responsible for killing Jax’s parents, but that will turn out to be utterly meaningless as Jax and the Baron never share a scene together at all, and Jax gets his revenge by remote control.
The entire script is filled with these moments that don’t come from anywhere and don’t go anywhere. At no time is it ever revealed what the Scarlet Leader would gain by starting World War III. We never find out why the Baron killed Jax’s parents or who Jax’s parents even were. You could watch the movie without sound and take away just as much information about the story and the characters. The plot introduces events that are played like twists, but a twist requires that the audience at least thinks it knows what’s going on before the twist happens. One of Jax’s team turned out to be a traitor. One of Scarlet Leader’s henchmen turns out to be a double agent. The gold turns out to be fake. The real treasure on Devil’s Crown turns out to be something else. The Scarlet Leader turns out to be someone Jax has already met. And so on and so on.
“Unmasking the Idol” is so incoherent and rushed that it scarcely matters that the movie’s final exchange makes no sense. “Why do you always seem to get more than you bargained for?” Jax’s compatriot asks as they fly away in a truck tethered to a hot air balloon. “Because I do things the old-fashioned way – I earn it,” Jax replies. You might remember that line from a series of investment firm commercials from the 80s, but that doesn’t make it a joke. Likewise, Unmasking the Idol includes elements you might remember being in other movies, but that doesn’t make it a movie.
The movie is incoherent and stupid, yes, but that hardly makes it boring. Strangely, the movie’s rock-headed plotting and characterization works in its favor as it plunges headlong into its action scenes without care and never stays in one spot for long enough to wear out its welcome. The characters are one-dimensional, but so is the dialogue, so it never seems out of place. And there’s a certain dumb charm in the way the Scarlet Leader’s scenes play out, with piranha pits and throne rooms and a lot of evil laughter.
“Unmasking the Idol” is one of those movies that has remained stuck in the VHS era, only occasionally popping up on Amazon Instant Video, which is where I was introduced to it. Even though a movie this “80s” might deserve to remain trapped in the Phantom Zone of videotape, there’s something so dopey about it that it should be seen as a relic of its time. Everything that was cool at one point becomes embarrassing before becoming cool again, and Duncan Jax is worthy of another chance.