Those of you following the news beyond covid, Brexit, and the second impeachment proceedings of a certain tangerine menace, might have caught a little news story about an attempted hack on the water treatment system of the city of Oldsmar, Florida. After gaining access to the system using remote access software. The hacker planned to poison the city’s water supply by pumping in a “dangerous” amount of chemicals. Luckily, the person in question only succeeded in increasing the amount of sodium hydroxide (lye) for a brief period of time, before his action was spotted and stopped.
While this real-life news story has some rather terrifying connotations, I could not help but be reminded of a story from the dark and dingy history of 1980’s action cinema. It’s a story of revenge, blackmail, intrigue, sexy garden hose sequences, and gymnasts turned secret agents. It’s a story that lets Gene Simmons embrace his feminine side with full gusto and doing so gives us one of the best supervillains ever to bless the silver screen. It is a story that could have only been begotten in the ’80s; birthed by a cocaine-fuelled fever dream of a pitch meeting where the words “James Bond” “Hermaphrodite” and “Bronx Warriors” seemed like the perfect recipe for the decade’s biggest blockbuster. That story, of course, is Never Too Young to Die (1986).
Directed by the Knight Rider producer Gil Bettman, Never Too Young to Die tried its hardest to be the next big thing in the American action cannon, bringing James Bond style spook stories up to date for the modern audiences. Gone were the days of old British fuddy duddy secret agents, it was time for younger, sexier, flashier spies to make their mark. In the shoes of the hero stepped young John Stamos, still a year or so away from his Full House fame, and to fill the role of his evil counterpart none other than KISS bassist/co-lead singer Gene Simmons. The results are gloriously over-the-top trash that most of the cast wanted to distance themselves from as soon as the filming was finished. In other words; the best that 1980’s action schlock has to offer.
The film has an exceptionally strong start by introducing the viewers to the weirdly post-apocalyptic world of Velvet von Ragnar (Gene Simmons) and his gang. Dressed in leather finery, glamorous feather boa, and sporting make-up eerily reminiscent that of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Ragnar holds court by reciting a beat poetry style speech (one of many), where he conveniently introduces us to the basic premise of the film: if the city does not pay the ransom of “Gold, ransom, jewels and money” he demands, he is planning to poison the local water supply with radioactive waste. The only problem is that the computer disk necessary for putting this plan to action has been stolen by Ragnar’s old nemesis, secret agent Drew Stargrove (George Lazenby of James Bond fame), making enraged Ragnar use his infamous metal nail to slaughter the gang member responsible for this faux pas, and demand the rest of his followers to bring him Stargrove!
From here the film’s theme tune “Stargrove” (Performed by Tommie Lee Bradley) swiftly moves us on and introduces us to the other major player in the story: Stargrove’s only son, Lance Stargrove (John Stamos), who is hoping his dear old papa would just once show up for the parent’s day at his school. No such luck here, as Stargrove senior is busy trying to get rid of Ragnar for good. Alas, the plan does not go accordingly, and it is Stargrove himself that ends up six feet under, leaving his son a trust fund, a farm, and, of course, the much-coveted computer disk. It is now up to Stargrove junior to take on Ragnar and his gang of wasteland hooligans, and hopefully save the good people of Southern California from radioactive tap water.
Luckily Lance is not alone in this task, but while investigating the mysterious farm he has so generously just inherited, Lance encounters secret agent Danja Deering (Vanity of Vanity 6) whose nonchalant attitude toward being nearly blown to pieces by Ragnar’s goons does not impress Lance one bit. And neither does Danja’s choice of nightclubs: a leather-clad motorcycle club, where patrons may drive their vehicles straight to the bar and Ragnar dominates the stage under the stage name Velvet. The crowd chanting his/her name, Ragnar appears in the spotlight wearing BDSM inspired carnival gear (imagine KISS as samba dancers and you pretty much get the idea) bestowing the audience with his spoken word musical stylings of a song very fittingly titled “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me”. It is no “Sweet Transvestite”, but damn if it doesn’t stick in your mind. After enjoying the show, Lance heads backstage to get an autograph and bug Ragnar’s dressing room, while Pyramid (Ed Brock), Ragnar’s right-hand man, plants a bomb on Lance’s motorbike. Luckily for both parties, neither of these plans works as Ragnar promptly finds the bug and flushes it down the toilet, and silly, naïve Lance gets his bike stolen by bigger boys and thus avoids being blown up yet again.
But the trouble is never far away when you’re a Stargrove, and it does not take long until young Lance must prove he really is his father’s son, as Danja gets kidnapped by Ragnar’s thugs. With a little help from his school friend Cliff (Peter Kwong), Lance charges to Danja’s rescue and for his troubles gets rewarded with a seductive show involving suntan lotion and a garden hose. A quick roll in the sheets follows as a sensual saxophone solo sets the mood. Very sexy. No time for pillow talk though, because Ragnar’s on the move and closer than one would think. As our heroes jump into a helicopter, they quickly realize that the man behind the controls is none other than Ragnar himself and they are being transported to his (not so) secret lair. Ragnar holds another beat poetry session before commencing with torture, much kerfuffle takes place during which Lance and Danja free themselves and Lance chases Ragnar down to their final showdown on the nearby dam. In the end, it is good old-fashioned flattery that ends up being Ragnar’s downfall (literally), Lance, Cliff, and Danja ride into the sunset and the good people of Southern California can sleep a little easier. Or can they…
It is impossible to talk about Never Too Young to Die without talking about Gene Simmons and his outstanding performance as Velvet von Ragnar. While the rest of the performances are enjoyable, with Stamos doing a somewhat wooden but still entertaining role as a spoiled and petulant teenage hero, and Vanity doing her darndest to be the sexy action star the role calls for, it is definitely Simmons that steals the show with his completely over-the-top portrayal of the intersex villain. This depiction is obviously not without its problems. Like many portrayals of trans and intersex individuals in the past (and since) it does, unfortunately, fall under that same tired narrative of the third gender being inevitably evil. This same narrative has been hacked to death before in films like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Sleepaway Camp (1983), never offering a very positive viewpoint on the subject. On the surface Velvet von Ragnar does not differ much from this stuffy old representation: he is, after all, the villain of the story. However, where Ragnar does stand out is the fact that his gender identity is never hidden in any way. Unlike in the aforementioned films where gender identity is used as the shocking end reveal that explains the villain’s heinous acts, Ragnar’s intersex identity is loud and clear from the very get-go and is never alluded to be the reason behind his devious pastimes. He is simply a criminal, a supervillain if you will, who also happens to be intersex (note: the film being as dated as it is, Ragnar is referred to as being hermaphrodite rather than intersex which can make some of the dialogue ever so slightly cringe-worthy). The whole issue is dealt with in a very matter-of-fact manner and mentioned more as a way of giving Ragnar’s character some more background, rather than explaining away his evil deeds.
Now, presenting an intersex individual as some sort of deranged cabaret artist is obviously not the most flattering portrayal. Just because he is intersex, does not mean he should necessarily be wearing extravagant show outfits, gigantic wigs, and flamboyant make-up. Indeed, the styling of Ragnar’s wardrobe is reminiscent of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in more ways than one. This can either be read as a piss poor attempt of intersex representation or perhaps, it is simply who Ragnar is? He is certainly someone with a penchant for extravagant theatrics. He loves high heels and tight corsets, but equally enjoys disguising himself as a typical cis man and going undercover amongst his enemies. He revels in performing and being seen and does not shy away from any challenge. He is also not the only ne’er do well with interesting clothing choices, but all of Ragnar’s followers seem to style themselves as some kind of post-apocalyptic doomsday cult, even though they live in modern-day California, making Ragnar’s bombastic sense of style somewhat more understandable. After all, a gang of that sort needs a leader with serious charisma and Ragnar certainly has that in spades.
Simmons’ portrayal of the character does not come with a modicum of shame; Ragnar owns his identity as fully as Lance does his cocky machismo. He proudly holds court amongst his cohorts, controlling his troops with an iron fist. In the prelude to Ragnar and Lance’s showdown, Ragnar proclaims: “Lance, can’t you see the greatness in me? I’m female and male. Man and Woman. I’m better than you are!”. He stands proud and lives his truth, even if that truth involves some rather high-level criminal activity. In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Simmons remembers being offered two different roles in the film; that of a marine commander and a hermaphrodite. Lucky for us he chose the latter. He has thrown himself into the role as fully as one possibly could, giving a performance that is as camp as it is cheesy, but all the same absolutely fantastic. Without it, the film would merely be another sub-standard 80’s action romp, filled with the same old genre tropes and nothing interesting to offer.
If Ragnar as an ambassador for intersex individuals is problematic, he is certainly not alone in that. The film is filled with questionable content that today would see it be “canceled” as soon as it hit the screens, if not sooner. The character of Cliff, the plucky Asian sidekick with a knack for technology, definitely dances somewhere between a racial stereotype and blatantly racist. Equally, Lance and several other male characters represent the narrow view on manliness, that we nowadays would label under “toxic masculinity”. At the same time, Lance’s sexual relationship with Danja is sure to raise some eyebrows, as he is after all only a high school student, and Danja a fully grown adult. While both parties might be more than willing, it just looks and feels so wrong when watched through 21st-century lenses. However, none of this is anything out of the ordinary for the times and you can find similar (and worse) stereotypes all over the 1980s (and 90’s and 00’s…) cinema. That’s not to say they are right, but simply that they are a product of their time. As said before; only in the ’80s.
There are obvious indicators that Never too Young to Die was hoped to lead into a sequel or perhaps even a franchise. It is not just the cliffhanger ending where Danja muses about the fact that Ragnar’s body was never found, but the whole film seems to be built in a way that would hopefully lend itself to the James Bond-style series, including the brief appearance of 007 himself. Sadly, this never happened. The film was a flop in every possible way, making its lead actor, John Stamos, instantly regret his life choices. In the aforementioned interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Stamos recalls thinking that the role would be his way to the big screen: “I just thought, ‘This is my shot! A young James Bond!’ I thought it was going to be the biggest breakthrough. ‘I’m done with TV — I’m going to be a movie star!’ And then I did that piece of shit.”. Needless to say, Stamos’ first reaction was to get as much distance between him and his would-be ticket to stardom, and just hope no one sees or remembers it. And indeed, it has largely been forgotten. Only those enthusiastic about terrible 80’s cinema or cinematic performances of one Gene Simmons are likely to dig it out. And it’s a real shame. For all its schlocky glory, Never too Young to Die absolutely deserves much more recognition in the 1980’s action landscape. With all its questionable content, outrageously bonkers characters, and (not completely) far-fetched plotlines, it is definitely recommended viewing for any fans of 1980’s shlock.
Stamos has eased his views on the film over the years and come to embrace the experience, even wishing that more people would see it. So much so that he (with Simmons’ encouragement) has attempted to buy the rights to the film, in order to be able to build on its well-deserved cult audience. “It’s the perfect midnight-movie, where people can come and dress up. It’s — what’s the term I’m looking for? — the best worst thing you will ever see.” I have to say, I agree.