Home > Reviews > ROBOT JOX – Frédéric Talgorn

ROBOT JOX – Frédéric Talgorn


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The cinematic sub-genre of ‘enormous things fighting each other’ has a small but storied history. The Japanese do it best, with their myriad of monstrous kaiju in the enduring Godzilla series. Michael Bay’s risible Transformers movies made a ton of money at the box office but remain mindless, brain-dead Hollywood products. Director Guillermo del Toro tried to pump some life back into genre with yet more robots when he produced Pacific Rim in 2013, and did so to some acclaim, even though I personally didn’t care for them. However, one of the least-known efforts in the genre is this one: Robot Jox, which actually predates all the American entries. Written and directed by Stuart Gordon, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic future where traditional warfare has been outlawed and, instead, giant machines fight international battles to settle territorial disputes. The film follows the adventures of Achilles (Gary Graham), one of the ‘jox’ pilots who controls these robots in a series of gladiatorial encounters, and who is called on to take part in a vital contest against a Russian opponent for the fate of Alaska.

The score for Robot Jox is by French composer Frédéric Talgorn, who studied music at the Conservatoire de Paris, and moved to the United States in 1987 with the specific intent of scoring movies. Robot Jox was one of three movies Talgorn scored in 1989/1990 and so can essentially be considered his mainstream film music debut – and what a debut it is! The music was performed by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra and is a high-energy, fully orchestral, sci-fi action romp, built around a terrific heroic main theme. Talgorn’s clear influence on this score is John Williams, whose broad and bombastic space operas were still very much the rage as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, and whose lush orchestral sensibilities were the absolute gold standard. Some of the chord progressions and instrumental combinations in Robot Jox are pure vintage homages to 1980s Williams, which makes the whole thing feel like a delightfully nostalgic throwback.

There are three main themes running through the score – one for Achilles, one for his Russian nemesis Alexander (played by Paul Koslo), and one for Achilles’s fellow jock and love interest Athena (played by Anne-Marie Johnson). Achilles’s Theme is the score’s primary identity and is a fantastic, heroic, ballsy brass fanfare which plays almost like a classic Western theme. In every western the Americans are the good guys, so in this film’s cold war analogy the use of those familiar rhythmic ideas makes sense for the hero. Conversely, Alexander’s theme is a more militaristic and slightly oppressive Russian-flavored march, usually anchored by brass but with a sharp, insistent percussive undercurrent. Finally, Athena’s Theme has all the hallmarks of a lush Golden Age romance score, and is full of sweeping strings underpinned by a dignified brass counterpoint. Sadly Athena’s Theme feels somewhat under-used in the score proper, which is a shame because it’s absolutely sumptuous.

The opening “Overture” presents a wonderful concert arrangement of two of the score’s main thematic identities, beginning with a rousing opening statement of Achilles’s Theme that knocks your socks off. It switches to Athena’s Theme at 0:32 – gorgeous – and then offers a playful arrangement of Achilles’s Theme at 0:56, counterpointed with Athena’s Theme on lilting oboes. After some extrapolations and variations Achilles’s Theme returns at 2:45, this time arranged for stirring strings and Golden Age brass, before a final explosion of brassy militaristic power closes the piece.

The first real performance of Alexander’s Theme comes at the 3:19 mark of “Crash and Burn/Achilles vs. Alexander,” and sounds for all the world like a brighter, less-ghastly version of the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi! The vast majority of the rest of the score proper is given over to bold, bombastic action-and-suspense music, with numerous statements of both Achilles’s Theme and Alexander’s Theme, illustrating the central conflict between the two global powers, and how the fate of both rests on the shoulders of these two men and their giant fighting robots. What’s so great about the score, however, is Talgorn’s mastery of the orchestra, and the almost limitless number of sensational things he does with it in terms of rhythms, performance techniques, and instrumental combinations.

Several cues stand out as being especially superb. “Prologue/The Battlefield” features a number of atmospheric orchestral textures, colorful and evocative, with notable writing for heavy percussion and shrill strings. “Open Her Up!” is full of brass fanfares and gladiatorial pageantry that is almost Rózsa-esque in its pomp and spectacle. “Crash and Burn/Achilles vs. Alexander” arranges Achilles’s Theme for dark brass and militaristic percussion, blended with noble patriotism and a rich vein of Americana, while in the cue’s more energetic second half Talgorn does some terrific things with percussive piano lines and throbbing tremolo strings, including some sensational runs after the 4:50 mark.

“Hey Jock, Old Buddy” is a virtuoso percussion-only track that reminds me of the ‘Drop Ship’ music from James Horner’s Aliens. The subsequent “The Traitor” appears to channel both Horner and Jerry Goldsmith with a series of spacey ambiences bolstered by dark string writing that creates a sinister mood. “That Won’t Work/Achilles to the Rescue” sees Talgorn sliding impressively into extended sequences of orchestral dissonance, featuring huge rasping trombones, screeching strings, piano clusters, and deconstructions of Alexander’s Theme that get tossed around between different parts of the brass section in striking fashion.

Cutting through this orchestral machismo are several statements of Athena’s Theme but, unfortunately, Talgorn made the somewhat peculiar decision to base her in-film musical identity around synths. I can see what Talgorn was going for here, alluding to the film’s futuristic setting with a different sound and timbre, but unfortunately the end results have a too much late-80s electronic cheese than most people will be able to tolerate. The performance in “Achilles’s Bedroom” sounds oddly primitive, while the fanfare variation on her theme in “Athena’s Fanfare” just sounds cheap. The only place where the music actually works is in the more traditionally orchestral “Achilles Leaves,” which uses bright horns, soft strings, and elegant woodwinds, has a gorgeous romantic sweep, works in classy violin flourishes, and ends with an emotional downbeat chord. I fear that, at this point, I should also mention “The Jock Strap Bar,” a groovy piece of disco-funk source music that is so of its time it should be wearing legwarmers.

The score’s finale – comprising the cues “Space Battle,” “Transformation,” and “The Final Confrontation” – is essentially a 6-minute action sequence underscoring the final fight between Achilles and Alexander and their robots. The whole thing has a massive sound, containing a huge amount of terrifically complicated orchestral writing, wondrously spacey chord progressions, and hints of both Achilles’s Theme and Alexander’s Themes in juxtaposition and counterpoint to each other. Some passages have a relentless staccato feeling to them that may remind many of the purposeful, stately space marches John Barry wrote for Moonraker and The Black Hole; later, at 0:56 in “The Final Confrontation,” there is a fantastic moment where Alexander’s Theme is arranged for brooding cellos like the theme from Jaws! The whole thing builds and builds through to the actual finale cue, “We Can Both Live!/End Titles,” in which Talgorn really beefs up the emotions, opening with a series of enormous religioso string chords filled with gravitas and poignancy, and ending with a sweeping reprise of Athena’s Theme pitched like a romantic epic. The last 3½ minutes of the piece is basically a reprise of the Overture, which ends the score on a satisfying note.

Due to the film being a critical and commercial flop, the score for Robot Jox was not released immediately when the film was, and did not surface as a soundtrack recording until 1993 when it was picked up by the independent Belgian soundtrack label Prometheus Records. An expanded issue was released by Intrada Records in 2017, with a slightly different program that more closely matches the chronological order of the film, and around five minutes of alternates and bonus cues. I prefer the Prometheus version, for what it’s worth.

It’s a shame that Frédéric Talgorn’s career never quite developed in the way it should have, considering the depth and scale of his talent. He had the misfortune of scoring a series of critical and commercial flops one after the other – this one, the campy horror movie Buried Alive, the Chuck Norris action sequel Delta Force II later in 1990, the Christopher Lambert sci-fi flop Fortress in 1992, the sleazy Basic Instinct wannabe The Temp in 1993 – and so by the end of the 1990s he was already back in France, his Hollywood career essentially over. The music for all those films was good, sometimes great, but when the movies themselves are bad AND no-one sees them anyway, you could be Mozart and you still won’t get work. Some of his more recent scores in Europe (Anthony Zimmer in 2005, Molière in 2007, Asterix Aux Jeux Olympiques in 2008) are similarly outstanding and well worth checking out – but if you want to start somewhere with Talgorn, start with Robot Jox. It has all the enthusiasm and energy of a young composer eagerly trying to impress his first employers, and will make you wish someone had heard his music sooner and given him the mainstream opportunities his talent so richly deserved.

Buy the Robot Jox soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (3:35)
  • Prologue/The Battlefield (2:44)
  • Achilles’s Bedroom (1:38)
  • Open Her Up! (1:14)
  • Crash and Burn/Achilles vs. Alexander (6:57)
  • Achilles Leaves (1:44)
  • Fanfare for Athena/The Jock Strap Bar (3:38)
  • Hey Jock, Old Buddy (2:01)
  • The Traitor (1:55)
  • Alexander’s Four-Legged Robot (1:09)
  • That Won’t Work/Achilles to the Rescue (2:47)
  • Space Battle (2:24)
  • Transformation (1:07)
  • The Final Confrontation (2:34)
  • We Can Both Live!/End Titles (4:28)

Running Time: 39 minutes 55 seconds

Prometheus Records (1990/1993)

Music composed and conducted by Frédéric Talgorn. Performed by The Paris Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Frédéric Talgorn. Recorded and mixed by P hilippe Lafont. Edited by David Marshall. Album produced by Frédéric Talgorn and Luc Van de Ven.

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