Spoiler (1998): Against the Clock

Produced by John Eyres. Directed by Jeff Burr. And starring Gary Daniels. If that doesn’t twist your arm, here’s Matty with why this brilliant sci-fi drama is worth seeking out.

Following the financial success of Timelock (1996), The Apocalypse (1997), Dark Planet (1997), and Absolution: The Journey (1997) — a quartet of good-to-great sci-fi quickies shot back-to-back on the same sets — DTV demigod John Eyres and his company, EGM Film International, remained in the genre for their next two offerings, Convict 762 (1997) and SPOILER. As with Timelock et al, they’re both rock solid flicks — though in terms of rank, it’s Spoiler that’s the jewel in EGM’s future-shock crown.   

At Spoiler’s core is a phenomenal performance from Gary Daniels. Almost completely eschewing the kind of arse-kicking action for which he’s best known, the martial arts star unleashes a dramatic tour de force as Roger Mason. A convicted felon, Mason is initially sentenced to a year’s cryogenic suspension, but the bulk of the film details his transformation into the eponymous ‘spoiler’: a wonderful bit of William Gibson-esque terminology used to describe a lag with an indeterminate stretch hanging over them due to their propensity for escaping. Thus Mason literally becomes trapped in the criminal justice system, and his obsessive desire to reunite with his daughter increases with the same ferocity as his punishment every time he breaks free, is re-apprehended, and is refrozen again for longer and longer periods. 

Episodic in structure, the repetitive nature of Michael Kalesniko’s smart script imbues Spoiler with a cyclical quality that amplifies the tragic crux of its narrative. Beneath its ‘Demolition Man (1995) meets Fortress (1992) meets Groundhog Day (1993)’ premise, Spoiler is about the guilt that comes with being absent from your child’s life. Giving the note-perfect Daniels plenty of meat to sink his teeth into, Kalesniko positions the achingly stoic Mason as a man as much at war with the clock as he is the establishment. Because of the continuous cryogenic suspension, Mason never ages — but his daughter does, which leads to a climax that, while obvious, is nonetheless devastating. 

However, as emotionally ruinous as Spoiler is, it’s also a lot of fun.

Despite his use of a pseudonym implying that the project was a thankless gun-for-hire task, Spoiler is, in fact, among Jeff Burr’s finest work [1]. His sole hard sci-fi joint, the perpetually underappreciated maverick’s dynamic style is an excellent fit for the material, and he ekes a tremendous amount of mileage from Mason’s ambiguities. For much of Spoiler’s duration, it’s largely irrelevant whether Mason has done what he’s been sent down for or not. Instead, Burr is wholly focused on reconciling the poor bastard’s plight with what, I presume, are his own thoughts on the U.S. prison system, pointedly suggesting that those at the mercy of it are never allowed to truly rehabilitate anyway.  

Tech-wise, Spoiler, which was shot in eighteen days, is gorgeously lit and framed by the late Phillip Lee [2] and Burr does an incredible job creating a textured and immersive cyberpunk world on a paltry $500,000 budget. Even better are the Lynchian eccentrics that the helmer has Mason encounter on his jail-breaking odyssey. Brought to life by a jaw-dropping pool of talent (among them: Bryan Genesse, James Booth, Tony Cox, Jeffrey Combs and Burr regulars and semi-regulars Timothy Bottoms, Meg Foster, Bruce Glover, Willard Pugh, Duane Whitaker, and Joe Unger), and frequently deployed for comic effect, they add a welcome dose of theatricality to what’s otherwise a genuine tear-jerker. Crucially, they all feel like they could actually exist within the vivid dystopian milieu that Burr conjures, too. 

USA ● 1998 ● Sci-Fi, Drama ● 96mins

Gary Daniels, Meg Foster, Bryan Genesse, Jeffrey Combs ● Dir. Jeff Burr (as ‘Cameron Von Daacke’) Wri. Michael Kalesniko

[1] He was, mind, removed from the film during post, hence the nom de plume. As Burr told Keith Bailey of The Unknown Movies, “I never really got to put together a cut of the movie. The producer had wanted to direct the movie, but couldn’t due to schedule, so he ending up trying to direct in post.”
[2] Incidentally, before his death in 2016, Lee was hired to shoot From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) and Dark House (2009) after Burr recommended him to their respective filmmakers as a result of their harmonious artistic union here.

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