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Retro Review: You Think BATMAN & ROBIN Was Cheesy?

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Alyas Batman En Robin
Written by Joey de Leon; directed by Tony Y Reyes 
Copyright 1991

As someone who has never really quite been on board with the whole “dark and gritty” movement in superhero comics, I have to put my hand up to a certain preference for the old, way-out campy versions of the old school, when superheroes were flat-out unrealistic and utterly ludicrous and no one cared. That was part of their appeal, really: in a world that was already quite dark-n-gritty enough by itself, comics offered mindless goofy escapism with a fairly hefty chunk of wish fulfillment on the side.

Enter Joey de Leon. Mr. de Leon is probably not known much outside his native Philippines, but there at least he’s known for churning out comedy movies, generally in collaboration with Tony Y Reyes, who handles the directing chores. A quick stroll through de Leon’s oeuvre shows an impressive CV: nearly one hundred TV and movie credits, several of which he was at least partially responsible for writing. But a pattern begins to emerge as you read down the list: Ali in Wonderland. Starzan. Long Ranger and Tonton. Goosebuster. And probably his best known work, Alyas Batman En Robin.

The first thing to understand is that this is not your typical rip-off. This isn’t your average Japanese Spiderman or Brazilian Star Wars. de Leon ‘s specialty is parody. His movies are unabashedly goofy spoofs, making no pretense to being anything more than what they are.

Strap in for this one.
Strap in for this one.

In Alyas, de Leon plays Kuya, older brother to Kevin (Keempee de Leon, Joey’s son, apparently). Kevin is a popular kid in school, well-liked and admired by the girls. He’s also slightly obsessed with Batman & Robin comics. Kevin’s school friend Jocson (the late Rene Requiestas) is a fellow comics enthusiast, though his appeal to the girl students is basically nonexistent. Still, when he overhears some of the other students planning to beat up Kevin out of resentment for his popularity, he gives his friend advance warning. Unfortunately, Kevin gets beat up anyway and blames Jocson when he doesn’t dive in to the rescue, preferring to run and get help instead. When big brother Kuya finds out, he drags them to the bullies’ home, and promptly sets off an all-out battle royale that sends the bullies and their friends scattering.

Pictured: diplomacy
Pictured: diplomacy

Meanwhile, Jocson’s criminal uncle Paeng (played by the late comedian Panchito), just out of the pokey, tells him that he has decided to redo the organization after their “idols”, with Jocson becoming Joker, and his uncle the Paenguin. (You see what they did there? Everybody? Good.) Before you can say “cheap wardrobe”, they’re robbing armored cars, banks, and anything else they can get their hands on. There’s also a running gag of them stiffing, screwing-over, and/or outright killing their goons, proving once again that no matter where you go, there’s no future in henching.

Wait til they get a load of...oh, never mind.
Wait til they get a load of…oh, never mind.

By this time, Kevin & Kuya, who have been following the news, decide that someone has to do something about the new villains in town. The obvious solution? Become Batman and Robin.

Meanwhile, Joker has met with Catwoman (Almira Muhlach, whose outfit and house seem to bear more resemblance to Wild World of Batwoman) to borrow extra goons, which he then takes to the local Smith & Wesson for a hold-up. And here we step quietly, casually, into the realm of madness. Yes, folks: it becomes a musical. The songs in the movie are mostly old surf-era rock & roll tunes that have been given new lyrics in the movie’s mix of English, Filipino, and Tagalog, all of which results in a disconcerting sort of mishmash that only adds to the weirdness that abounds pretty much everywhere in this movie already.  After a sprightly rendition of “They Call Me Mr. Joker”, the gang takes off with the loot.

Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.
Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.

 

See what I mean?
See what I mean?

Meanwhile, Kevin has talked Kuya around and the two are seen getting into shape while the second song of the movie “Holy Smoke, Batman and Robin” (to the tune of “Surfing Safari”, of all things) blares out. This is an odd montage, with Kevin doing most of the actual training while Kuya goofs off. Also,  intercuts in the garage show the Batmobile slowly coming together. Joker & Penguin continue their musical assault on the innocent citizens of Gothum (yes, really) until the brothers, hanging out in their new “batcave”, receive word of an armored car holdup. Into the costumes and away they go.

The training montage from "Rocky" it ain't.
The training montage from “Rocky” it ain’t.

The fight that ensues is … well, it’s about as realistic as the ones from the TV show. Lots of foleyed-in identical slap effects and a fair amount of athletic leaping about. No graphic POW! or THWACK! effects, surprisingly enough. Put it down to directorial restraint. After the fight, Kuya/Batman talks to Angelique Legarda (Dawn Zulueta), plucky girl reporter, last seen photographing the villain gang leaving a jewelry heist. She agrees to meet him that night at the cemetery. He takes her back to the bat garage — sorry, cave — and he gives her the whole story.

Robbery, murder, *and* air guitar. Will their infamies never end?
Robbery, murder, *and* air guitar. Will their infamies never end?

 

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Truer words…

After some more criminal antics (including trying to rob a blood bank), the villains head out to do some more evil deeds, only to have Our Heroes ambush them. After a lengthy fight (during which the uses of cats as offensive weapons are fully explored), nearly the whole gang is captured except Joker who, as the song goes, got away.

But not all is peaches and bat-cream: Kevin finds himself increasingly in competition with this alter-ego as the girls at school flock to their new idol. Fortunately, one of them still carries a torch for (and picture of) him: Vina (real-life singer/actress Vina Morales). The two sing a duet together which pretty much brings the movie to a screeching halt, but isn’t overly bad even if it is rather schmaltzy. Kuya-as-Batman, meanwhile, is busy wooing Angelique with flowers and candy. After a dream sequence, he realizes he must go to her and confess his love. She reciprocates, though at least this time they don’t break into song.

From "Things Yout Never Wanted to Know about Superheroing"
From “Things Yout Never Wanted to Know About Superheroing”

Joker, meanwhile, breaks his uncle Paenguin out of prison. Kevin is gung-ho to swoop back into action, but Kuya just wants to settle down with Angelique. Kevin reluctantly goes out on his own, establishing himself as a solo crimefighter. While visiting Angelique to explain the situation, Robin is interrupted by the arrival of Joker & Paenguin. It seems Uncle P is rather sore about his time in prison, and wants to avenge himself on the caped crusader. While Robin is dispatching the henchmen, Joker finds Angelique and holds her hostage. Robin winds up shot, and Angelique is spirited away to their hideout.

After visiting Kevin in the hospital, Kuya heads out to rescue Angelique. When Kevin hears, he drags himself out of his bed to follow suit. Batman methodically works his way through the henchmen, catching up with Paenguin just as he was about to escape with a suitcase full of money. After locking him in a caged room (and shutting off the light), he goes in search of Angelique. After Robin joins him (sliding down a banister just in time to save his big brother from getting gunned down), they pummel the rest of the goons senseless in time for the police to come by and round up the whole lot.

Good or evil, who doesn't love a good bannister slide?
Good or evil, who doesn’t love a good banister slide?

Joker & Paenguin escape via the prison sewer system, and plot to commit crimes disguised at Batman and Robin. This works surprisingly well, given that Batman has gained about forty pounds and Robin now has a mustache. Works too well, in fact, as the thugs from earlier in the film catch them in the middle of a treasury robbery, and proceed the lay the beat-down on them. Of course, the real dynamic duo show up and clean house, ending the crime spree once and for all. Later, a contrite Jocson & Paeng show up at Kuya & Kevin’s house and turn over their Joker & Penguin outfits, swearing to be good from now on.

Disguise level: Flawless
Disguise level: Flawless

Victory declared, Kuya reveals all to Angelique, only to get a surprise as he comes to take her out to dinner and finds her dressed as Wonder Woman. This segues into the last big musical number of the movie, a pean to being good, saying your prayers, taking your vitamins, and not relying on comic book characters as effective role models. At which point a whole host of costumed superheroes and villains join together in a big song and dance number to the tune of “At the Hop”.

Still more Wonder Woman than the average DC movie.
Still more Wonder Woman than the average DC movie.
Uhm...okay?
Uhm…okay?

Alyas Batman en Robin made its debut in 1991, two years after Tim Burton rebooted the Batman franchise (and comic book movies in general) with his take on the Batman story. Actually, the filming started in time to coincide with an ’89 release, but Warner Bros were understandably not big on the idea, and so the release was delayed two years while the legal issues were sorted out.

I’ve already mentioned the fact that the film uses multiple languages and switches between them freely. This can make for some odd moments as the dialogue swings briefly into English and back out again. For instance, you might see one girl cooing over Kevin’s picture and describing his appeal to another student, only to get “and so handsome and oozing with sexiness” right between the ears. It’s a bit of a jolt, but interesting from a linguistic standpoint. Philippine languages reflect the islands’ colonial history, with a lot of Spanish loan words and English as one of the country’s two official languages. Interestingly, this allows for multilayered punning: when Uncle Paeng decides to become Tio (uncle) Paenguin, Joker suggests he call himself Chu-pa-enguin instead, working in a Spanglish slang term referring to, er, oral gratification. Or so they tell me.

The humor involved is mixed: plenty of slapstick — people falling into swimming pools, getting hit in the head, that sort of thing. Also lots of jokes that may or may not cross the ocean entirely intact (for example, when Batman & Robin’s uniforms are revealed, Batman complains because the “R” on Robin’s shirt is actually the logo for Regal Films, one of the major film production companies).

That brings up the fourth wall: there is a fair amount of breakage going on here — characters addressing the camera directly, indicating they know perfectly well they’re in a film (“I know, I’ll have a dream sequence”). Nothing on the lines of say, Deadpool (which I also reviewed), but a fair amount if you’re receptive to that sort of humor.

As spoofs go, this one is okay. It plays up the aspects of the old TV show that are best remembered, and likewise never fails to go for the laugh, even during the dramatic sequences. It is somewhat disconcerting to see the Paenguin mowing down his henchmen with a machine gun as played for yuks, but perhaps they just have a more robust sense of humor out that way. The romance feels a bit forced, both love interests coming along with surprising speed and fervor. And while Angelique’s character at least helps drive the plot forward, one really gets the impression that Vina was just there to sing her song, so to speak.

I tend to be a bit cautious about using the phrase “guilty pleasure” when it comes to entertainment like this. True, it won’t win any awards for writing, or direction, or comedy, or … well, you get the idea. But the fact of the matter is, it is enjoyable. It knows exactly what it is and dives in utterly regardless of such petty concerns as quality and taste. You can’t really laugh at it, because in fact it’s laughing at itself. You can only join in. Get the right bunch of friends together and this could make a great party flick.

Joey de Leon is still producing and starring in movies — mostly TV movies nowadays — and seems to have left his spoofs behind. Kind of a bummer, but it is good at last to see him still up and kicking out there, no matter what the project. In the meantime, Alyas is getting more and more traction in the west via the bootleg & fan-con circuits. Hopefully, this will eventually result in some more of his works becoming known and available. In the meantime, this reviewer is off to find a copy of Goosebuster.

Hey, can’t be that much worse than the second movie, right?

Still better than Batman & Robin
Still better than Batman & Robin

See all our Retro Reviews here.

(Kelly Luck suspects she may just be someone else’s mild-mannered secret identity. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)

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