Dir: Savage Steve Holland
Tyler (Ricardo Hurtado) is continuously in trouble at school and his stepfather (Jeff Meacham) is so sick of it that he makes Tyler spend the summer taking a course to become a junior rescuer down at Malibu beach. After a while, Tyler discovers that the head of the programme (Ian Ziering) doesn’t want him or the rest of his team there, because they don’t live near the beach. Along with their scatty instructor Dylan (Jackie R. Jacobson), Tyler and his new friends decide that they are going to beat the top team of recruits in the final test.
Technically a pilot for a new Netflix series, but uploaded there as a movie separate from the series as a whole, Malibu Rescue wouldn’t be something I’d have addressed (or probably even watched) but for the fact it’s directed by Savage Steve Holland, who is one of the true lost talents of 80s cinema. Holland’s three teen movies of the 80s: Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer and How I Got Into College are all anarchic comedies that, though they fit perfectly into the decade’s cycle of teen cinema, have a very particular tone and humour. For 30 years now, Holland has been largely lost to TV, working on series like Lizzie McGurie, Zoey 101 and Fairly Odd Parents, his only non TV project since the early 90s has been the direct to video Legally Blondes, the Reese Witherspoonless third in the series. I didn’t see any of those projects (they clearly weren’t aimed at me), but Malibu Rescue suggests that the spirit of his features has never quite left Holland.
Like Holland’s other recent projects, Malibu Rescue is definitely targeted at children. It’s simplistic, with stereotypically sneering bad guys (Ziering, and JT Neal as Brody, the leader of the elite team, the Dogfish), simple morals about family of various stripes and a very much expected ending in which everyone who deserves it gets their comeuppance and each of the misfits on Tyler’s team gets to show how what makes them weird is also one of their strengths. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the nature of the film, and I suspect that this one will appeal to adults a bit more than most projects of its ilk because of the weirdness that Holland brings to it.
Fans will recognise some signature aspects of Holland’s work here, albeit somewhat watered down. The Momhacks vlogs that we see Tyler’s mother (Catia Ojeda) making call to mind a significantly less crazy, but still pretty funny, version of Kim Darby’s comepletely spaced out turn as Lane’s mom in Better Off Dead. Some of the running gags also hit on this tone, a little boy called Jeffy (Michael Mourra) who keeps bothering Tyler always turns up a laugh and even if the gags are simple slapstick, Holland’s timing keeps them fresh. Also straight out of Holland’s earlier work is a running gag with a deliberately poorly animated stop motion crab.
At just 69 minutes, the film never has time to let the pace flag, and it would definitely benefit from developing its characters more. The villains get very little to do, I don’t think Brody’s two assistants even get a line between them and even for a film like this, Brody himself is underwritten (though JT Neal plays the dumb jock stereotype well and gets a few good laughs out of some fairly obvious gags). Tyler’s team, the Flounders, get a bit more development, but everything feels as though it’s on fast forward, with Tyler’s shift from trying to get thrown out of the programme to embracing it coming very quickly. The Flounders basically get one or two personality traits each, with Dylan being a klutz because she’s lacking confidence, Lizzie (Abby Donnelly) being obsessed with first aid, Gina (Brianna Yde) being the serious one, but also obviously hiding something and Eric (Alkoya Bruson) being enthusiastic, supportive of his new friends, and a little bit needy.
The cast commits and brings energy and warmth to their performances, you buy them as a group and hopefully that dynamic will develop in the series that follows this film, because there is plenty of room to open these characters up. For me, Abby Donnelly is a standout, nailing one particularly offbeat and surprisingly dark gag, while Jackie R. Jacobson has fun with a cliche character and, happily, isn’t paired off with anyone, allowing her to be defined by her journey to finding her confidence in training these kids (who are only a few years her junior). It’s a pleasure to see Curtis Armstrong, something of a trademark for Holland, pop up as a weirdly cheerful janitor. They don’t share a name, but there’s still a part of me that could see this being his Better Off Dead character later in life. On a similar note, Vooch (Jeremy Howard), the bus driver who gets the kids to the beach each day, is basically the character Armstrong would have been in his younger days.
Malibu Rescue is no masterpiece, and while because of the age of its characters it counts as a teen movie, the rushed running time means that it touches only lightly on coming of age themes. It's also not quite a fully formed work from Savage Steve Holland, but it’s always amiable and enjoyable, and the bits of Holland’s personality that slip through made me smile and laugh more than many Hollywood comedies of late. I hope this film and the series take off on Netflix, not just because I enjoyed it, but because its success would make, after 30 years, a new feature with Savage Steve Holland at full strength, a real possibility.