I-Man (1986) — Scott Bakula quantum leaps into a superhero

“I was perfectly all right before I became indestructible.”

Justin’s rating: Brought to you by Apple

Justin’s review: Years before Scott Bakula became a household name and geek legend with starring roles in Quantum Leap (1989) and Star Trek Enterprise (2001), he was but a fresh-faced kid looking for his big break in movies and television. Both of these came calling at the same time in 1986, as he was cast for the starring role (his first!) in a pilot for a proposed superhero series. While the series wasn’t picked up in the end, Disney repackaged it as a Sunday evening movie called I-Man, and through this we get a glimpse of the Bakula career that could have been (but probably shouldn’t have).

Bakula is Jeffrey, a nervous taxi driver who sees a NASA van take a spill into the middle of his son’s football field. While trying to rescue a newly returned space probe, he gets blown up well and good. Kind of a bummer for his son (Flight of the Navigator’s Joey Cramer) who witnessed it, but at least it will keep this TV movie’s runtime down and let me make my next appointment.

Wait, what’s that you say? He got dosed with mysterious Space Gas™? And now he’s indestructible? Well, that worked out for the best, I’d say! Especially considering that from this point on, he gets nearly killed at the rate of one incident per 10 minutes! And he still feels all of the pain (presumably) from each wound, so now he has to suffer eternally! Wait, did Disney just create hell here?

There’s a logic to this particular superpower, if you think about it. If you’re going to create a TV superhero in the ’80s, you’re not going to have a huge budget to blow on special effects like flying, eye lasers, stretchy arms, or adamantium claws. But a dude who shrugs off damage? All you got to do is fake accidents, show some bloody makeup applications in reverse, and there you go. I-MAN.

NASA and the government show a rare level of responsive competence and seize Jeffrey right after the accident to run tests on him. Compared to movies with superhero origin stories that last for an hour and a half, it was kind of refreshing to get I-Man’s starter package resolved in the first 15 minutes. He’s a little perturbed that he’s never going to die, thanks to infinite regeneration, but the upside is getting a well-paying job at the government.

Watching this, I’m reminded why we all loved Quantum Leap so much. Scott Bakula may not be the most talented actor of our generation, but he’s so inherently likable that you don’t care. You want him to be your dad or your pal or your attorney at law. Oh, he wants to be on my TV? That’s fine, just hang around with me, Scotty! Here he’s so buoyantly earnest as a guy who can’t handle stress (hence, the taxi driving job) and who’s rightly freaking out about being turned into an expendable agent for Uncle Sam.

About this time, a crazy rich dude steals a military train full of G.I. Joe laser guns to hold up the world or something. But it turns out that these are ATOMIC laser guns that will go into meltdown if I-Man, his government-approved AA sponsor Karen (Ellen Bry), and his super grumpy combat instructor don’t get them back. The good news is that if he fails, he’ll have backup, as his kid also develops the same set of indestructible powers.

Another dose of good news is that all of the bad guys don’t seem that concerned about I-Man and his female lackey when they’re captured, as they’re shown to guest rooms on the honor system. Shock of shock, they leave their rooms and spend wayyyy too much time trying to figure out a way to egress this large house while various minions with laser tag guns chase them.

As we well know, every good hero needs a weakness… and I-Man has a really dumb one. Like, so dumb. Apparently his powers shut off and he starts to fade into a coma if it gets dark. He acts like he’s solar powered and just flops down to the floor in shadows. Why dark? Maybe the Space Gas is scared without a nightlight, shut up. It does seem like it’s setting him up for failure, though, what with darkness happening pretty much daily.

Moving at a fair clip, I-Man manages to stave off boring filler in favor of a fast-paced plot, Scott Bakula’s plush eyebrows, and rather good characterization. I wasn’t expecting that last one, to be honest. So many of these cheap little movies skimp on developing the cast, but here we get some down-to-earth conversations that really humanize the core roster. Of course, if this was a pilot, it’s a good idea to endear yourself to viewers as someone worth remembering.

While the actual action is, you know, made-for-TV, the other thing that really stuck out was the soundtrack. I know — characters and soundtrack, that’s what you came to this review for. But seriously, I-Man lays on the dreamy intergalactic synth, especially whenever Jeffrey’s powers kick in. It also gets insanely eccentric, sometimes distractingly so, but I am here for it.

Friends, I actually had a good time with I-Man, and I was prepared to rag on it like crazy. I can’t tell you if it would’ve been a hit series or not, but I didn’t mind it as one of those crowd-pleasing family flicks that Disney used to put out all the time. And I really didn’t mind spending 90 minutes with my Bestest Friend Forever, Scott Bakula.

Didja notice?

  • Space lasers logo!
  • Enjoy all of this leftover NASA space shuttle footage
  • Long-lost space probes should be run down corridors at top speed like this is the ER
  • What kind of crazy drivers does NASA employ
  • That kid does not seem that upset that his dad just got blown up
  • “Alien AT-mosphere”
  • His appendix grew back? That’s impossible!
  • There’s no way the government would let him go that easily
  • “If you’re trying to scare me… you just did.”
  • What, Rambo couldn’t make it? Pity.
  • That is one really old camcorder
  • Becoming indestructible means you can get even with bullies
  • Cows and airplanes don’t mix
  • “I have a wife and eight kids. EIGHT.”
  • Rich guy had an entire castle shipped over from Europe. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.
  • SUPER FAKE SNAKE ALERT!
  • Ask girls out after you save their lives
  • Crazy millionaires play with tiny little action figures just like the rest of us
  • Bad guys love a good hug
  • “Yeah, she’s extraordinary all right. Look what you did to my lucky shirt!”
  • “I’ll have eggs too. Eggs Benedict… Arnold!” OK, I laughed at that.
  • Punch through curtains! …is ineffective
  • Cool, he’s going to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge just because “it’s there”
  • One punch knockout
  • Not going to be crawling through those tiny air vents, eh?
  • All of Jeffrey’s jobs, including repairing elevators

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