Sadly, we didn’t get a summer movie season this year. To compensate, each Friday we presented “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, strangest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. We saluted the DeLorean. We talked about racist Transformers. We even ranked every single Oscar-nominated performance from a summer blockbuster. Today, we pay tribute to bad Labor Day releases of yesteryear.
This weekend is usually a cinematic graveyard. Normally, after a robust summer full of action movies, superhero films and other assorted blockbusters, studios quietly drop their least-desirable films into theaters over the long holiday weekend, knowing full well that audiences aren’t going to bother heading to the multiplex. (Everybody’s too busy enjoying their last gasps of summer vacation before jobs or classes come calling.) Labor Day is, historically, when Hollywood doesn’t want you paying attention to movies.
But not this year. Circumstances have conspired to give us three major films coming out this weekend: Charlie Kaufman’s critically acclaimed psychological horror film I’m Thinking of Ending Things (on Netflix), the live-action Mulan (on Disney+), and Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet (in theaters, depending on where you live). Because of the pandemic, it’s been a decidedly unremarkable summer movie season, so it only stands to reason that this will undoubtedly be the most dynamic Labor Day weekend ever. After all, nothing else has made sense this strange year.
To give you an inkling of what a typical Labor Day movie weekend is like, I’ve put together a quick overview of some of the most memorable releases from past years. And by “memorable,” I mean “not all that memorable.” It is entirely possible less than half of these titles will ring a bell. And that’s the point: Hollywood would prefer you never knew these movies ever existed. So, without further adieu — and a passing nod to Shark Night (which I already wrote about this summer) — here’s my tribute to Labor Day releases that, I swear, I did not make up.
Knock Off (1998)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? Jean-Claude Van Damme’s commercial peak was behind him when he reunited with revered action filmmaker Tsui Hark — they’d previously worked on Double Team together — for this goofy thriller in which Van Damme plays a fashion designer in Hong Kong who gets mixed up with American law enforcement and local gangsters.
How Bad Is It? Rob Schneider plays an undercover CIA agent. That’s how bad Knock Off is. Still, it seemed like the former Saturday Night Live star enjoyed the experience. “In Hong Kong the safety standards are a wee bit different than they are in other places,” Schneider recalled. “When we did a traffic scene you simply look this way, look that way and if there are no cops, you go! It was ridiculous! My stunt guy broke his leg, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s guy tore his shoulder. I can’t say I would ever do that again but it was fun.” It wasn’t, however, fun for the audience.
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? A couple years before Mel Gibson’s drunken, antisemitic blow-up at Malibu cops, he produced a dark revenge thriller in which a wronged movie star (Cole Hauser) goes after celebrity photographers who are harassing him. Gibson was so invested in the material that he actually hired his former hairdresser, Paul Abascal, to direct it. Clearly, Mel wanted us to know that movie stars have it tough out here.
How Bad Is It? Amusingly referred to as “Mel Gibson’s second crackpot persecution-complex film of 2004” by film critic Robert Abele — The Passion of the Christ had come out earlier that same year — Paparazzi was rightly written off as a sub-Death Wish that wasn’t nasty or morally complex enough. Listen, celebrity photographers are terrible human beings, but even they deserved better than this trashy stinker.
The Wicker Man (2006)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? You know what movie this is. It’s the one where Nicolas Cage plays a cop looking for a missing girl (who may be his daughter!) and winds up on an island full of sinister women — and then he has an unfortunate run-in with some bees.
How Bad Is It? For the record, I actually think this remake of the 1973 British horror film is more interesting than its reputation suggests. Cage and director Neil LaBute are having a little fun with gender roles, turning this island of women into a commentary on a matriarchal society that’s a sly, fearsome reaction to the patriarchal one in which we live. But it’s hard to notice that sort of chin-stroking intellectualization when you’re too busy laughing at the hackneyed scare sequences and Cage’s typically Cagian performance. To this day, you have to wonder how many people yell “How’d it get burned!?!?” at him on the street because of this film.
Balls of Fury (2007)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? Robert Ben Garant, part of the creative team that gave us Reno 911!, made his directorial debut with this sports/spy/kung-fu spoof starring Dan Fogler as Randy Daytona, a former table-tennis champion recruited by the FBI to go undercover. His mission: infiltrate the dangerous lair of Feng (Christopher Walken), who puts on an annual high-stakes ping-pong tournament. (Also, Feng killed our hero’s dad.) But first, Danny will need to be mentored by Wong (James Hong), a master in the art of table tennis.
How Bad Is It? Garant, who wrote the script with his Reno 911! partner Thomas Lennon, wants to have fun mashing up all these different genres, but it turns out that ping-pong isn’t especially hilarious. Also, neither was Fogler, who’s sorta going for a low-key Jack Black vibe that never quite works. All these years later, it’s still hard to listen to “Rock of Ages.”
Disaster Movie (2008)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? For a while, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer were the auteurs of bargain-basement spoofs. After working on the scripts for Spy Hard and Scary Movie, they embraced the genre head-on with such incredibly terrible comedies as Date Movie and Epic Movie. Then, in 2018, they put out Disaster Movie, which like their previous films was basically a hodgepodge of references to popular current movies. Everything from No Country for Old Men to Iron Man got roasted, although never in any sort of witty way. Here’s a representative clip — it’s a parody of High School Musical and is not in any way funny:
How Bad Is It? It’s a tossup which of the Friedberg/Seltzer films is the worst. (Maybe Vampires Suck?) Honestly, they’re all the lowest level of comedy, offering more proof — if anyone ever needed it — that the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker films were works of genius. Not that the duo care: In 2014, Seltzer said, “We love writing, we love directing, we love the actors we work with. We have our own families that we raised. Jason has kids, I have kids, we have wives, so we don’t sit around [reading reactions].” Which is good considering that none of their films has cracked eight percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? Filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are known for their gonzo action style, and their debut, 2006’s Crank, was actually a Labor Day release, although it quickly became a sleeper sensation, inspiring a sequel three years later. Also in 2009, they put out Gamer, which imagines a dark future in which video-game avatars are actually real-life prisoners being controlled by the gamer. Gerard Butler plays the avatar and Hunters’ Logan Lerman is the gamer.
How Bad Is It? The Crank films are beloved for how over-the-top they are, but Gamer isn’t nearly as adored. The New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis called it “a futuristic vomitorium of bosoms and bullets,” which is the sort of pan that almost feels like a ringing endorsement. Nonetheless, Gamer died at the box office, and Neveldine/Taylor went on to do the poorly-received Ghost Rider sequel, Spirit of Vengeance.
Since then, the filmmakers have talked a little about doing Crank 3 while focusing on solo projects. “At the end of the day, we want to do our own stuff,” Neveldine said in 2015, “but we also want to make some rad movies together.” Sadly, it’s been a while since they have.
All About Steve (2009)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? Let’s say you have a film starring Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper. Sounds promising, right? Now, imagine that she plays Mary, a troubled woman who goes on a blind date with Steve (Cooper), a cameraman who wants nothing to do with her. Okay, well, what if she suddenly decided to start stalking him — but in a comedic way, even though it’s clear that she has real psychological issues? Well, that’s All About Steve, which Fox dumped over Labor Day 2009, just a few months after her smash success The Proposal and a few months before The Blind Side came out — and her eventual Oscar win for Best Actress.
“She all but rapes [Steve] in his van the minute she sees he’s attractive,” John Wilson, who heads up the Razzie Awards, said at the time of the Mary character. “Then she proceeds to stalk him across the entire Midwest, through a tornado, down a well. At the end of the movie, when she falls down the well, you don’t really want her to get up.” Are you laughing yet?
How Bad Is It? “Easily the worst movie of the week, month, year and Bullock’s entire career,” Boston Globe critic Ty Burr famously wrote. “It is to comedy what leprosy once was to the island of Molokai: a plague best contemplated from many miles away.”
All About Steve didn’t keep Academy members from voting for her for The Blind Side, but it didn’t spare her the indignity of receiving Worst Actress at the Razzies the night before the Oscars. In fact, she actually showed up to get her Razzie, telling the crowd, “I didn’t realize that in Hollywood that all you have to do is say you’ll show up and then you get it. … [H]ad I known that, I would have said I was appearing at the Oscars a long time ago.” That line was funnier than anything in All About Steve.
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? Mike Judge has a reputation for making movies that, upon their initial release, fail to make a dent at the box office, only to gain cult status after the fact. That’s certainly true of Office Space and Idiocracy, which are as quoted as any comedies of the last 20 years. But people tend to forget Judge’s other movie, which starred Jason Bateman as the owner of a flavor extraction company who decides to hire someone to have an affair with his wife (Kristen Wiig) so he won’t feel guilty about having an affair himself. (Ben Affleck is also in this, playing Bateman’s bartender buddy.) This was actually the second time a Judge movie was dumped on Labor Day weekend: Idiocracy suffered the same fate three years earlier. Except everybody talks about that film, and nobody remembers Extract.
How Bad Is It? With his previous two movies, Judge managed to tap into something universal, respectively, about dead-end jobs and the dumbing-down of America. But Extract ended up being too minor and convoluted to strike a similar chord. This was long after Bateman’s career renaissance with Arrested Development and before his next pivot thanks to Ozark, and he’s mostly just a Michael Bluth-ian everyman, except not as funny or interesting.
But the movie does offer up a good reminder: Always pay attention when you’re on a factory floor. Your testicles will thank you.
Apollo 18 (2011)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? So, there’s Apollo 13 (the Tom Hanks movie) and Apollo 11 (the documentary about the moon landing). In between, there was Apollo 18, which advertised itself as a found-footage movie about a secret moon mission that the public never knew about… until now. In the grand tradition of The Blair Witch Project, Apollo 18 was presented as a real-life horror film that depicted what went wrong when three luckless American astronauts encounter… something on the lunar surface.
How Bad Is It? Although Apollo 18 was critically savaged, I didn’t entirely hate it. (I really am a sucker for found-footage movies.) Even so, this is a pretty generic genre entry, and it quickly disappeared from theaters. Fun fact, though: Apollo 18 was the English-language debut of Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego. He hasn’t done much notable since… unless you count Backdraft 2, which, yes, is a sequel, nearly 30 years later, to the 1991 firefighter movie. And William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland were actually in it playing their characters from the original! Sadly, López-Gallego didn’t try the found-footage gimmick here.
The Transporter Refueled (2015)
Wait, Remind Me What Movie This Is? When Jason Statham was starting to establish himself as a suave, stylish action hero, the Transporter movies were a big part of his early introduction to audiences. (Although, ironically, The Transporter 2 opened in the U.S. on Labor Day weekend in 2005.) But by the time of the 2015 reboot, Statham had moved onto bigger things like the Fast and Furious films.
In his place came… Ed Skrein, who took over the role of Frank Martin, stoic badass and pseudo-007 wannabe. But where Statham brought a little wit and charisma to the part, Skrein just tried really hard.
How Bad Is It? This is how forgettable The Transporter Refueled is: I had zero memory that I’d actually seen it until I stumbled on my review online. Must have really left an impression! (This is also how forgettable The Transporter Refueled is: Apparently, it’s a prequel to the original trilogy, which I don’t think I ever realized, even though I saw the damn movie.)
Bad B-movie action flicks are a dime a dozen — especially over Labor Day — and you need a Jason Statham to give them a little life. Without him, they’re just dumb and not much fun. And, clearly, the producers got the hint: The Transporter Refueled seems to have killed the idea of doing a Skein trilogy. One film was more than enough. Not that I even remember it.