Prisoner Maria: The Movie

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Despite its title, Prisoner Maria: The Movie has a different set of influences altogether. First up heroine Maria is only a prisoner for a few minutes; the most obvious reference point is Nikita, and it’s not alone. As documented elsewhere, Luc Besson’s film has spawned a TV series, one remake, and a host of unofficial clones, all on the theme of a female criminal forced to become a government assassin. This tape is not the first Prisoner Maria adventure, and things have changed somewhat over time: her bosses have become kinder, and no longer use death-threats against her child to convince Maria they’re serious. She also gets a car to ship her around, rather than having to sprint back to beat their deadline: run, Maria, run! Now, she does the hits merely in return for access to her son, but it’s more poignant and altruistic than in Nikita, which was largely driven by pure self-interest.

Given the ongoing nature of the series, the set-up and background are understandably sketchy. However, it’s enough, and Maria (Noriko Aota) is swiftly hunting a serial killer who is a potential embarrassment to the government, since he’s a politician’s son. Were it this simple. it’d be a very short film – even as is, it’s only 75 minutes – and so she’s soon embroiled with the Taiwanese mafia, a nosy cop, and a particularly mad doctor, whose hobbies include mind-control, white slavery, organ bootlegging and saying typically mad-scientist things, such as “I am God! What’s wrong with God changing the minds of people?” It’s not giving much away to hint that a bad end awaits.

Based on a manga by Shigeru Tsuchiyama and Shintaro Iba, this is cheerfully shallow stuff, although the occasional sequences of abuse may have more liberal viewers twitching — the depiction of the serial killer at work is unlikely to survive any British release. Aota wears a selection of tight dresses and short skirts, and performs her action scenes creditably enough, though the likes of Michelle Yeoh will not be losing any sleep. In addition, some thought has clearly gone into the story, which is perhaps where it wins out most convincingly over Scorpion’s Revenge.

For the core of exploitation is countering the inevitable budgetary limitations. Usually it’s through something like nudity, which has been described as the cheapest special effect. However, just as cheap is imagination, and it tends to be this which lifts the better kind of trash cinema above the pack. When Scorpion’s Revenge leaves the familiar confines of the prison setting, it runs out of ideas, while Prisoner Maria does its best to keep the audience interested throughout. It also boast a stronger core concept, and that’s why it has the potential for a series, whereas Scorpion’s Revenge fails to get through one film – as for a series…I think not.

[A version of this article originally appeared in Manga Max]

Dir: Shuji Kataoka
Star: Noriko Aota, Tetsuo Kurata, Koji Shimizu

Black Scorpion

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Roger Corman is a man without shame – and that’s in no way intended as an insult. He simply utilises any resource to the best of its ability, as is shown by the three versions he’s made of Not of This Earth, in 1956, 1988 and 1995. Black Scorpion similarly showcases his ability to take a thin storyline, basically little more than a Batman clone, and parlay it into two movies made for Showtime and a TV series. Even if the results proved steadily more lacklustre, such industry can only be admired. Present in the movies, but absent in the show, is former model Joan Severance, veteran of The Red Shoe Diaries, and she certainly cuts a striking figure – like most Roger Corman films, the film sells itself as much on the sleeve as plot, characters or talent. It’s your basic costumed vigilante, driven to operate outside the law following the death of a loved one, possessing cool gadgets and a neat car with which to fight crime.

The main problem with this film is an inability to decide whether to take itself seriously; there’s no consistency in tone, not least between hero and villain. Darcy (Severance) plays it all dead straight in her role as a suspended cop, but the villain is a Darth Vader clone called The Breathtaker who, with his army of “wheezing warriors”, wants to make everyone in Gotha…er, the City of Angels breathe like him. Now, in Batman, Adam West also took it seriously, but with such an air of scenery-chewing to his deadpan, that it enhanced the whole effect. Here, the opposites cancel out, leaving something whose tone is decidedly herky-jerky. There are decent moments, however, a lot of them coming from Saturday Night Live original member Garrett Morris, who gets his performance just right as Darcy’s mechanic. He comes up with toys such as a computer that requires all commands to be prefaced with “Yo!” – more of this wit would have been welcome. We also liked the villain’s wrestling henchwomen who insisted on being tagged-in before they can fight.

However, the movie stumbles badly out of the blocks, a lengthy prologue making for sluggish viewing. All the set-up would perhaps have been better off placed as flashbacks throughout, rather than in one lump at the start. We could then have got to the meat – Scorpion kicking butt – from the get-go, rather than having to wait 35 minutes for the titular heroine to appear. The action scenes are nothing special, save for the amusing way Scorpion’s high heels suddenly become flat whenever she is required to do more than stand still. Presumably her boots possess the same technology as her car, which mutates from a Corvette into a Porsche at the touch of a “Yo!” – they also, somehow, give her the ability to clear tall buildings with a single bound, proving that Corman’s collection of DC comics is broad indeed.

Of course, the one area where Corman can actually surpass the Dark Knight is sex. Hence, two scenes in a strip-club (set on different days, but conveniently for the budget, with the same stripper on stage!) and the fanboy-service sequence of Black Scorpion, in costume, seducing her cop partner. Word is, it was actually performed by a body double, which seems odd given Severance’s previous history. While mostly plodding, the overall result is not totally dreadful, passing 92 tolerable minutes – though we were anaesthetising ourselves with plenty of rum-soaked pineapple throughout. However, there’s very little here to justify a sequel, or explain the need for a spin-off TV series; that we ended up with both, is proof of Corman’s talents in the field.

Dir: Jonathan Winfrey
Star: Joan Severance, Bruce Abbott, Rick Rossovic, Garrett Morris

Xena: Warrior Princess series finale

“Get your yi-yi’s out.”

I used to be a Xena fan; for the first couple of series, I was a die-hard, never missed an episode, bought the merchandise, went to the gatherings, etc. I loved (with one exception) the supporting cast – Joxer, Ares, Autolycus – and still reckon Callisto remains one of the great TV villainesses of all time.

But the dynamic of the series slowly changed; Xena’s irritating sidekick, Gabrielle, started getting more screen time, and it became more of a relationship-based show than the action/humour cross which I knew and loved. Finally, around the end of Series 3, I gave up (I think the musical episode was a watershed – as with Buffy); not even the news that the series was ending could lure me back, and the finale in Summer 2001 passed me by. It even took me a month to decide to pick up the DVD, and then it was only ‘cos I had a Best Buy gift card burning a hole in my pocket. But I’m glad I did, as it’s an ending fit for a warrior princess.

Warning: the following, of necessity, contains extreme spoilers for the show’s end. Readers are advised not to proceed if they wish to avoid such knowledge.

Let’s get the spoiler out of the way first: the original title for this review was, Oh My God – They Killed Xena! You Bastards!, but wiser counsel prevailed. To screams of fury from the Hard Core Nut Balls (as Lawless herself once described the more extreme fans), Xena died. And this time, it was permanent – something of a change for a show in which fatality was previously only a minor inconvenience. Indeed, one of the problems was there was no longer any tension, characters having come back from the grave so many times, even death no longer had a sting. The reason for the reaction, it seems, was less the actual death, than the separation of Xena and Gabrielle. For a small but extremely vociferous part of fandom invested the relationship between those two with far more than the actresses (and most of the creators) intended. These “subtexters” wanted to see the two walk off into the sunset, hand-in-hand – probably sporting crew cuts and Birkenstocks too, if you catch my drift. The makers sometimes jokily acknowledged these obsessives, which was perhaps like trying to put a fire out by throwing petrol on it.

The things which made them dislike the finale were, perhaps, the ones why I enjoyed it. I was never bothered by the concept of a Xena being a lesbian, it was just the idea that whiny waste of space Gabrielle was her partner which I found inconceivable: sidekick, yes; love interest, no. The finale largely downplayed Gabrielle’s role: she was entirely absent from the half told in flashback, concerning a previous adventure back when Xena was, shall we say, “morally independent”.  This created the drive for the film. The incident in question saw Xena ransoming a Japanese girl – forming a bond with her which certainly has subtextual elements of its own. But it all went horribly wrong, and Xena caused – albeit inadvertently – the deaths of 40,000 people. Now, the only way for her to find redemption is to kill the demon which consumed their souls…but the only way to do that is to become a ghost herself. While there’s the usual escape clause, at the end we discover that any return to life would condemn the souls forever; Xena is not prepared to do this, and so remains dead into eternity.

xenafinLike the series itself, the finale veered wildly between the fabulous and the questionable, vacuuming up influences like Tarantino on speed. From Japan: Kwaidan, Shogun Assassin and Akira Kurosawa. From Hong Kong: A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman. From the West: The Evil Dead and Sergio Leone – the former makes sense, since director Tapert produced that classic slice of low-budget horror. Fortunately, it has a lot of its own to admire, rather than being a series of homages; the story is great, and the acting largely excellent.

The highlight is probably Xena’s death, a five-minute sequence of harrowing intensity featuring a never-ending hail of arrows, into which our heroine struggles, intent on finding a warrior’s death. It’s a fabulous combination of effects and acting, which would be worthy of any movie – at the end, there’s a mass exhalation of breath, as you realise that those who live by the sharp, pointy object, die by the sharp, pointy object. It’s entirely fitting, and if the show had ended there, I’d have had no complaints. The actual climax is clunky and contrived in comparison, though the shock value present remains huge, since you confidently expect the revival of Xena, right up until the credits roll.

On the downside are various, jarring inaccuracies: Xena’s ghost hugs Gabrielle but is incapable of holding her chakram (the “round killing thing”, if you didn’t know); some of the “samurai” possess blatant New Zealand accents; a giant explosion implies the medieval Japanese possessed nuclear weapons (given the location, this is in somewhat dubious taste). If Xena really cared for Gabrielle, why send her on a wild-goose chase of resurrection, when Xena knew it wouldn’t happen? Why did Gabrielle pause to get a full-back tattoo first, before going off on this, presumably somewhat urgent, quest? These are clumsy and obvious flaws which could/should have been corrected.

It still remains a brave and uncompromising finale, in an era when “final” is usually about the last word you’d use to describe them. While the door is not completely closed – not in a milieu where humans can become immortal and then get killed anyway – in all likelihood it is the end of Xena, and marks the close of her chapter. From a beginning as a minor character on another show, she became a cultural icon; whatever you may think of the series, its important place in female action heroine history cannot be denied.

Dir: Rob Tapert
Stars: Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor

Cape Fear: Action heroines, comic-book style

While 2003 has been touted as the Year of the Comic-book Movie, those centred around heroines have been notable by their absence. Sure, X-Men 2, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Daredevil have then in supporting roles, but going by the example of the last-named, anyone expecting much is likely to be sorely disappointed. Elektra, one of the toughest, deepest, most twisted characters in comics history – at least in the Bill Sienkiewicz/Frank Miller incarnation – was reduced to little more than a simplistic sidebar of little relevance. Credit to Jennifer Garner for doing what she could, but it’s safe to say that we’re not awaiting the touted Elektra spinoff with anything more than a “that’s nice” level of anticipation.

Nor are we holding our breath for Catwoman, just this week rumoured to have Halle Berry in the title role previously linked to Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This one has been popping up ever since Batman Returns – I would be surprised if we saw it before 2005 at the earliest, since the studio is largely busy next year, and it seems likely to have lower priority than a new entry in the Batman franchise.

The reasons for the shortage may be cinema’s long memory. Attempts at comic-book heroines have largely proved dismal failures at the box-office – Supergirl and Brenda Starr are good examples. But, hey, the terrible disasters which were Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter didn’t stop them turning video games into movies. And the small screen has shown little such aversion, back to the days of Wonder Woman. Witchblade and Birds of Prey have recently found incarnations in television, albeit not without problems of their own. Danger Girl is currently rumoured to be the next one making the leap.

The situation is radically different in Japan, not least because manga, as their comics are called, are universally popular rather than being perceived as fanboy-driven. Comics go particularly in hand with anime, animation which may be cinema features, TV series or OAVs (Original Animation Videos) made for DVD or tape consumption. The last-named has been particularly kind to action heroines, with entries like Outlanders and Battle Angel, and one wonders if this might be a productive route forward in the West too. Despite the lack of direct conversions to hand out of Hollywood – though check out Comics 2 Film for updated info on whatever titles you fancy – a number of films do exist which have taken at least various aspects of comic-book style, and incorporated them into the end product. This has been with varying degrees of success, it has to be said, but here are a few of the more easily accessible.

  • Heroic Trio

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    I usually start watching this in a sense of disbelief, since it’s certainly not the most immediately convincing of movies. However, there’s a point near the middle which has in quick succession an amazing action sequence and two revelations, one touching, one tragic, and I realise that I am, yet again, utterly buying into the characters, storyline and setting. Disbelief simply ceases to be an option, and by the end, I know why this is among my all-time favourites, not just in the action heroine genre, but among all cinema.

    While you can’t pin this down into any genre, it’s probably the intensity which carries the film. No-one does anything in half measures, be it love, hate, kidnap babies or eat their own severed fingers. The film captures the comic-book at its most primordial: good vs. evil, told in bold strokes and capital letters. SHAZAMM! “Evil”, in this case, is a demonic eunuch – looks male, sounds female – who is collecting baby boys whose horoscopes have them destined to be emperors, in order to rule and, er…the usual bad guy stuff. He is assisted by Invisible Girl (Yeoh), whom he has brainwashed into stealing an invisibility cloak from her inventor husband. It doesn’t work in sunlight, however, which is the only thing stopping our villain from executing his plan.

    For the forces of good, we have Wonder Woman (Mui), a policeman’s wife with a secret identity, and Thief Catcher (Cheung), a bounty-huntress who gets involved after she accidentally kills a baby while trying to lure the kidnapper out. She and Invisible Girl were childhood pals, and also knows that the three must join forces to have a chance of stopping the Big Bad. The casting is perfect: Cheung the perky optimist, Yeoh the tormented control victim, and Mui the calm and quiet wife with a secret. [There are suggestions the three represent China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – which is which, I leave up to you] Credit is also due to the rest of the cast, notably Wong as the wordless evil henchman, with a taste for self-cannibalism, small birds and a fatal flying guillotine.

    The action, choreographed by Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu-Tung is also spot on, though one suspect doubles were used for chunks. Particularly at the finale, there are times when the effects do over-reach themselves, and a little less ambition might have been wise. But the fact that everyone takes it completely seriously helps a great deal, though there are still question-marks over the plot: are the baby hostages safely rescued or not? At one point, Thief Catcher chucks a few sticks of dynamite into the villain’s nursery, saying the infants are hopelessly corrupt – not something you’ll see in any Hollywood movie! But at the end, the TV shows parents who look rather happier than you’d expect if they were being handed a plastic bag full of bits.

    Still, it’s not often a film manages to run the entire gamut of emotions. Inside 87 minutes, you get laughter, tears, moments both “awww” and “eugh – gross!” (that’ll be Anthony Wong), thrills, chills and enough flamboyant style to power several graphic novels. It wasn’t that big a hit at home, taking less than HK$10 million at the box-office (in comparison, the biggest Hong Kong film of 1993, Stephen Chow’s Flirting Scholar, took over HK$40m), but its cult status in the West is entirely justified. Be sure to avoid the horrific dubbed version though – indeed, be sure to avoid the horrific trailer too.

    Dir: Johnnie To
    Stars: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Wong

  • The Demolitionist

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    KNB are one of the best-known effects studios, having worked on movies such as Evil Dead 2 and From Dusk Till Dawn. With their background, one would have hoped they might have come up with a story that’s more than a shameless Robocop ripoff, but for a microbudget work (budget was only $1m, if I recall, and it was shot in 21 days), it’s not so bad. The cast are enthusiastic, and the film does a good job of capturing the desired comic-book style.

    Eggert plays Alyssa, a cop killed in the line of duty by Mad Dog (Grieco), who is then resurrected by Dr. Crowley (Abbott – his second appearance in this “cape fear” section!) as a bio-engineered crimefighter who years for her former life, but is obsessed with tracking down her murderers. Like I said: Robocop ripoff, right down to the satirical news-breaks, with references to ‘President Bono’. She even “dreams”, though the visions of hell that we see are, frankly, embarrassingly bad, and the middle act in general is sluggishly-paced.

    This is the kind of role for which Grieco was made – scenery-chewing to the max, although a certain amount of angst is understandable after your brother gets electrocuted via a puddle of urine (and, say what you like, that’s certainly an imaginative demise). Eggert is fine, and indeed shows more emotion than Abbott, who also tends to mumble his lines. Looks like a few horror favours were called in for the supporting cast: beside FX-god Savini, Heather Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street) plays a journalist, and Bruce Campbell has an uncredited cameo. A good chunk of the bad guys are also played by KNB employees, which keeps the wages bill down, I guess.

    As you’d expect from a movie directed by the K in “KNB”, the physical effects are solid; I was particularly impressed with the blood squibs which explode as pink powder in a wildly unrealistic, yet very cool-looking, way. The heroine’s costume, gadgets and bike are also nifty, and the action is by no means badly-staged – though one suspects a fair bit of doubling for Eggert, despite her swinging a staff decently enough. It’s a shame resources ran out before they could film the climatic sword-fight between her and evil henchmen Savini.

    Largely, however, the lack of money and time don’t destroy the picture – the main black mark against it is the severe lack of originality, which isn’t down to financing. Making a low-rent version of what is widely regarded as a classic, is hardly pushing the boat out artistically, and any comparisons will likely be to the detriment of The Demolitionist. Rather than a nice idea, poorly executed, this is a poor idea, saved by solid execution.

    Dir: Robert Kurtzman
    Star: Nicole Eggert, Richard Grieco, Bruce Abbott, Tom Savini

  • Black Scorpion

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    Roger Corman is a man without shame – and that’s in no way intended as an insult. He simply utilises any resource to the best of its ability, as is shown by the three versions he’s made of Not of This Earth, in 1956, 1988 and 1995. Black Scorpion similarly showcases his ability to take a thin storyline, basically little more than a Batman clone, and parlay it into two movies made for Showtime and a TV series. Even if the results proved steadily more lacklustre, such industry can only be admired. Present in the movies, but absent in the show, is former model Joan Severance, veteran of The Red Shoe Diaries, and she certainly cuts a striking figure – like most Roger Corman films, the film sells itself as much on the sleeve as plot, characters or talent. It’s your basic costumed vigilante, driven to operate outside the law following the death of a loved one, possessing cool gadgets and a neat car with which to fight crime.

    The main problem with this film is an inability to decide whether to take itself seriously; there’s no consistency in tone, not least between hero and villain. Darcy (Severance) plays it all dead straight in her role as a suspended cop, but the villain is a Darth Vader clone called The Breathtaker who, with his army of “wheezing warriors”, wants to make everyone in Gotha…er, the City of Angels breathe like him. Now, in Batman, Adam West also took it seriously, but with such an air of scenery-chewing to his deadpan, that it enhanced the whole effect. Here, the opposites cancel out, leaving something whose tone is decidedly herky-jerky. There are decent moments, however, a lot of them coming from Saturday Night Live original member Garrett Morris, who gets his performance just right as Darcy’s mechanic. He comes up with toys such as a computer that requires all commands to be prefaced with “Yo!” – more of this wit would have been welcome. We also liked the villain’s wrestling henchwomen who insisted on being tagged-in before they can fight.

    However, the movie stumbles badly out of the blocks, a lengthy prologue making for sluggish viewing. All the set-up would perhaps have been better off placed as flashbacks throughout, rather than in one lump at the start. We could then have got to the meat – Scorpion kicking butt – from the get-go, rather than having to wait 35 minutes for the titular heroine to appear. The action scenes are nothing special, save for the amusing way Scorpion’s high heels suddenly become flat whenever she is required to do more than stand still. Presumably her boots possess the same technology as her car, which mutates from a Corvette into a Porsche at the touch of a “Yo!” – they also, somehow, give her the ability to clear tall buildings with a single bound, proving that Corman’s collection of DC comics is broad indeed.

    Of course, the one area where Corman can actually surpass the Dark Knight is sex. Hence, two scenes in a strip-club (set on different days, but conveniently for the budget, with the same stripper on stage!) and the fanboy-service sequence of Black Scorpion, in costume, seducing her cop partner. Word is, it was actually performed by a body double, which seems odd given Severance’s previous history. While mostly plodding, the overall result is not totally dreadful, passing 92 tolerable minutes – though we were anaesthetising ourselves with plenty of rum-soaked pineapple throughout. However, there’s very little here to justify a sequel, or explain the need for a spin-off TV series; that we ended up with both, is proof of Corman’s talents in the field.

    Dir: Jonathan Winfrey
    Star: Joan Severance, Bruce Abbott, Rick Rossovic, Garrett Morris

Xena: Warrior Princess season two

Originally screened: September 1996

The defining moment of Xena’s sophomore season didn’t take place in any episode. In fact, it didn’t even take place in New Zealand, but thousands of miles away, During a rehearsal for an appearance on The Tonight show with Jay Leno, Lucy Lawless was thrown off a horse after it lost its footing, and broke her pelvis. It’s interesting to compare the reaction of the producers to what the Tapert/Raimi team did when the star of Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, was similarly a victim of severe misfortune, more than a decade later. There, they put the show entirely on hold and opted instead to film a prequel without him.

Now, it’s not quite identical: Whitfield had cancer, which unfortunately proved fatal, and shooting had not commenced on his second series. Still, one wonders if, in hindsight, it might have been better – for the viewer at least – had the show gone on hiatus, rather than trying to (literally) limp along, with an action star incapable of doing any action for most of its run. Oh, you certainly have to admire the creative way in which everyone worked around it: rewriting an episode here, inserting a body swap there. But having Hudson Leick pretending to be Xena trapped in Callisto’s body, is like having Sir Anthony Hopkins play Clarice Sterling inside Hannibal Lecter. While I’m a huge Callisto mark, even I have to say, it completely negates the whole point.

With Lawless’s limitations, the show was largely forced back on to the supporting characters post-fall, and that’s a bit of a mixed bag. Leick was better at being bad than being good, and Bruce Campbell was reliable as ever. But both Renee O’Connor and Ted Raimi were overexposed, and although they are fine in light comedy, they are just not capable of carrying a show from a dramatic point of view. Still, there were some solid episodes, my personal favorite being a successor to Warrior… Princess, giving Lawless three characters of disparate tone to juggle, and she does so magnificently. Despite general loathing in the fan community, I also enjoyed the Christmas episode, A Solstice Carol, for its loopy inventiveness. I mean… hula-hooping?

There’s no doubt that the subtext between Xena and Gabrielle was more explicitly brought out in this series, with several sequences in various episodes that are clearly there purely to tease the fans. However, by the end of the seasons, there seems to have been a certain feeling, among some creators at least, that this had run its course. For instance, writer Chris Manheim said, “We kind of backpedaled a lot on all that [subtext]. I don’t know whether it’s getting read in no matter what we write. But I think we’ve said “Ah, we’ve had our run at that,” and just concentrate on other aspects of their relationship. Whatever people read into it they do… You can only do that so much before it gets to be old hat and kind of tired.”

In terms of style and approach, the show covers even more ground here than the first time, from absolutely froth to grim darkness. Xena even gets crucified by Julius Caesar in one episode [confusingly, the actor responsible also crops up later, playing Cupid, complete with fluffy wings…]. I’m sure I’m not the only one who found themselves whistling Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, during the scene shown above right. Another unwitting Python reference is the wretched Here She Comss, Miss Amphipolis, a dreadful tale of drag-queen empowerment, featuring perhaps the least convincing female impersonator since John Cleese put on a dress – as on the left, watch that Adam’s apple bob….

Having Xena wander round a beauty pageant, defusing tensions between both competitors and organizers, seems to represent both the most desperate and transparent effort by the makers to save her pelvis, and the nadir of the series thus far. [Though producer Steven Sears said that episode was unaffected, it’s hard to believe such a woeful installment was as originally intended, and Manheim said the story “came about partly because…Lucy couldn’t fight much.”] While the underlying cause was unfortunate and certainly outside the makers’ control, their reaction seemed more concerned with contractual obligation than show quality, and it’s hard to deny the resulting, significant drop-off in standards which can be seen post-accident in this series.

Season 2: Top 5 episodes

# Jim IMDB voting
1. Warrior… Princess… Tramp A Day In The Life
2. Return of Callisto Ten Little Warlords
3. A Solstice Carol Return of Callisto
4. Intimate Strangers A Necessary Evil
5. A Necessary Evil Warrior… Princess… Tramp

Xena: Warrior Princess season one

Originally screened: September 1995

It’s assumed viewers are at least somewhat familiar with Xena’s background, as she is first seen burying her armour in an effort to bury her past. Of course, this is about as successful as it usually is in fiction, and it’s not long before she’s saving villagers, including Gabrielle, from slavery. That includes an aerial battle atop platforms, which is the first sign of the show’s strong influence from Hong Kong action films; it was using wirework, in a way that predated its popular arrival in Hollywood. Similarly, the stunning New Zealand locations foreshadow Lord of the Rings, to the extent that I kept expecting to see hobbits gamboling along in Xena’s wake.

There is a sense that the makers were still feeling their way to some extent, not quite certain how the relationships would work out, and the characters develop as the actors grew into them. The same goes for the action; especially early on, the doubling is clunkily shot, and Lawless is obviously not doing as much of her own work. The improvement over the course of the season was palpable, and by the end, both Xena and the stunt players had got a much better handle on the subtleties required. That said, I always had to wince when Xena would cartwheel her way into a situation – wouldn’t, oh, running have been quicker?

There are some good guest appearances; Tim Thomerson plays a mercenary on the downside of his fame and career [think True Grit in ancient Greece], and we also see Karl Urban, who’d go on to play Bones in the Star Trek reboot. The best of these, however, is Bruce Campbell in “The Royal Couple of Thieves”. Show producer Rob Tapert was one of the producers of The Evil Dead, so has known Campbell for years, and used him to play Autolycus, the self-proclaimed King of Thieves. Xena demands his help to recover a potentially lethal religious relic, stolen from its owners, so the two have to pair up. The dialogue and coming timing here is great, and the same goes for “Warrior… Princess…” which sees Lawless play both Xena, and her look-alike, flighty princess Diana. It’s a startling demonstration of Lucy’s genuine talent as an actress.

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The best episode, however, is about as far from comedy as the show gets. I write a good deal more about it over on the forum, but it centers on Callisto, who watched her family die in a fire during a raid by Xena’s army, back when she was bad. Now, Callisto has set out to destroy Xena from the ground up. Featuring an amazingly psychotic performance from Hudson Leick as Callisto, it goes to prove that every great hero needs a great villain, and Callisto is the Joker to Xena’s Dark Knight. They play two sides of the same coin, Callisto pointing out that Xena has never been brought to justice for all her past crimes.

Callisto is much further gone into the insanity abyss, as this speech she gives to Xena shows. “You let me go, and I will dedicate my life to killing everything you’ve loved: your friends, your family, your reputation, even your horse. You see, I am being so honest with you, because the idea of your pity is worse than death for me. You created a monster with integrity, Xena. Scary, isn’t it?” The show builds to a great battle between the two (above), inspired by a similar fight Jet Li had in Once Upon a Time in China. Watching this again… Yeah, I see why I loved the show!

Season 1: Top 5 episodes

# Jim IMDB voting
1. Callisto Callisto
2. The Royal Couple of Thieves Prometheus
3. Warrior… Princess… Sins of the Past
4. Sins of the Past The Greater Good
5. Altared States Warrior… Princess…

Joan of Arc (1999)

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joanofarcOne problem with history is that viewers likely know how it ends: if you want to surprise them, why bother making a historical drama? Joan of Arc knows this, so starts with her burning at the stake. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword: it robs the climax of its striking power, yet acknowledges without doubt, that this is a tragedy. The theme of manipulation is again strong here, with Joan discarded after having outlived her usefulness, despite an odd character change in the second half, where she drifts for a jarring moment into petulant bitch mode. It’s almost as if the makers hinted at a megalomaniacal side, crazed by power, and her fatalistic approach to her capture rings false – probably because it is nowhere near the truth. There’s more fabrication early on, with Joan an unwanted daughter who sees a friend (blind, no less) killed by enemy soldiers – must she always be some kind of post-traumatic stress survivor?

Once it hits its stride, however, there is rarely a wrong step, at least dramatically speaking – the French king again comes off as far more implicated in Joan’s death than evidence suggests. Neil Patrick Harris is convincing as Charles, who moves from self-doubt to certainty in his divine right to be king, then on to using that power against the one who put him there. Peter O’Toole too turns in a fine performance as Bishop Cauchon, though more facts are tampered with, allowing him to act as Charles’ spiritual advisor when he was actually always on the English/Burgundian side. That it’s a TV miniseries is apparent, with 15th century France populated by remarkably clear-skinned and straight-teethed people. There’s even hints of romance between Joan and her companion, Jean de Metz, which serves little purpose. The battle scenes, too, are all but bloodless – I wasn’t expecting the decapitations and arterial spurting seen in Besson’s film, but I didn’t really want the Middle Ages, sanitized for my protection. Even the guy dying of plague looks pretty good. [Chris noted a glaring continuity error at the end: on her way up to the stake, Joan is wearing shoes, but by the time she gets there, she’s barefoot!]

However, the main difference between this and The Messenger is that Joan of Arc is convincing. Perhaps with the advantage of having extra time (the DVD of the miniseries runs 189 minutes), they make the effort to show her interacting with other characters, and Sobieski’s calm, complete assurance is a striking contrast to Jovovich. The viewer can see why people would believe her, and it naturally follows they will too – Sobieski’s Emmy nomination was entirely well-deserved. Despite playing fast and loose with the facts (another example: Joan’s brother was not killed in battle, but lived to see her trial verdict overturned), this strong central performance holds the film together and, with the aid of the other fine actors, makes it eminently watchable. It may not be historically accurate, but it does a fine job of explaining why her myth is still honoured in the third millennium, without coming down in one camp or the other regarding the source of her visions. There are few TV miniseries worth watching, and fewer still worth owning, but this one comes highly recommended.

Dir: Christian Duguay
Star: Leelee Sobieski, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter O’Toole, Chad Willett

Jade Leung interview (1992 Eastern Heroes)

[The following interview was taken from the now unavailable (as far as I know) Vol.2,#1 of ‘Eastern Heroes’ magazine, published in summer 1992. It’s occasionally cringe-inducing (Bey, if you’re going to chat up actresses, we don’t need to read about it in the transcript!), but has its moments. No copyright violation is intended, and it’s reproduced for informational and educational purposes only]

Bey Logan goes on a pussy hunt, and tracks down the ‘Black Cat’ herself, that sensuous, sexy and ever-so-slightly-psychopathic Jade Leung.

RAP ON A HOT TIN ROOF

My old mate Betty Chan was looking worried. “When we did the Black Cat press tour in Malaysia,” she confided, “Jade didn’t say anything…” This didn’t phase me a bit. I’ve met most of Hong Kong’s lethal leading ladies, from Michelle Khan to Yukari Oshima, and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to meet the latest winsome woman warrior. D & B’s Black Cat has yet to get a release in the U.K. In fact, it has yet to get a distribution deal, which just goes to show how slow the U.K video market is at the moment. More than a few of you might well be wondering what’s so special about the him, and its leading lady. Trust me. Black Cat boldly goes where no H.K femme de la fureur flick has gone before, and the precious Jade is a Miss with a hit…

Luc Besson’s slick French thriller La Femme Nikita was a surprise success worldwide. The movie tells the tale of a psychotic Parisian street punk, played by Anne Parrillaud, who is drafted by a secret department of French Intelligence (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to perform covert assassination missions. In the course of the film, the Nikita of the title suffers to the point that she is redeemed of her past sins, and finds a kind of freedom.

Many critics were stunned at the way Besson used a woman as a viable action hero. Clearly, they had never seen many of the Hong Kong hyperthrillers, films that prove time and again that a Yellow Widow is just as deadly, and that hell really has no fury like a woman’s scorn (or sidekick, for that matter). There’s nothing new about Chinese film-makers ‘borrowing’ the plot from a western movie, as D & B did when they lifted the Nikita storyline to make Black Cat. Previously, though, such transitions have tended to beef up the stunts ‘n’ guns ‘n’ gung fu content, while avoiding the kind of nudity and sexual situations commonplace in the west and in Japan. Just compare Killer’s Romance or Dragon From Russia with their original, the animated Crying Freeman! Black Cat, on the other paw, marks the first time that a Hong Kong movie has adapted a western tale and added an element of sensuality to the tale!

In the U.K, ‘Category 3’ is a kind of prisoner. In Hong Kong, it’s a kind of film that contains nudity, on-screen sex and obscene language. These three elements have been stocks in trade for Hollywood since the days of Cecil B. DeMille but, oddly, seeing at there are so many of the buggers, Chinese people seem to have been rather puritanical about reproducing reproduction. Until now. In the last year, ‘Category 3’ has leapt to the fore, spearheaded, in fact double spearheaded, by the extraordinary success of one Amy Yip, an actress who makes Dolly Parton look like Shelley Duvall, a woman who seems to have taken delivery of a pair of Scud missiles with the same subtlety with which Iraq received its Supergun barrel. Known far and wide as the ‘Dai (Big) Balls Queen’, Amy is a much-loved figure of fun. However, the raunchiness of some of this Mae East’s vehicles have paved the way for more mature treatments of adult sensuality in Hong Kong action pictures. A prime example of this new genre-within-a-genre is Black Cat.

“She’s very shy”, observed Betty, for the umpteenth time, as we awaited the arrival of the Divine Ms. Leung. Betty Chan, I should explain, is the luckless D&B P.R. person who gets lumbered with taking care of my every whim when I go on the beat in Kowloon. Previously, she had fixed up interviews for me with the likes of Cynthia Khan and Donnie Yen. Perhaps she was worried that my straight ahead, no-holds-barred, National Enquirer q-and-a technique would unnerve poor Jade. I feared not. Along with my usual wit and charm, I had a secret weapon. I speak French, and so does Jade Leung. Would this be enough to ensure a frank and meaningful exchange of ’phone numbers…um…views? Read on….

BEY LOGAN: Est ce-que ce tres difficile pour tourner les cascades dans votre premiere film d’action ?

JADE LEUNG: Oui, c’est tres difficile, mais j’ai… Ai-yah! Your French is better than mine! Let’s talk in English and Cantonese, please!

BL: Okay Jade, you just made your first action film….

JL: It’s my first film of any kind!

BL: So you were in at the deep end in terms of doing fights and stunts. What was your background prior to doing Black Cat?

JL: I’m from Hong Kong. I went to Switzerland for about four years. I was studying there. I came back to Hong Kong in 1990, and went to work as a model.

BL: What were you studying in Switzerland?

JL: How to speak French, but not too much! I stayed in a Chinese restaurant there, so I wasn’t always speaking French. Also, I studied fashion design.

BL: It’s a real jump from that to being an action film femme fatale. How were you discovered?

JL: At that time, (director) Steven Shin started looking for a new actress to star in this film, Black Cat. They had the script already. Then, a friend of Steven Shin introduced me to him, and he picked me out of two hundred girls who auditioned for the part. All the girls in the modeling agencies cast for the film.

BL: Why do you think they picked you, out of two hundred other beautiful girls?

JL: I think I had a certain ‘look’ they wanted, and also I am very strong! My style was suitable for Black Cat.

BL: Most performers pay their dues with small roles in films before becoming big stars, yet here you were with a starring role right of the bat. It must have been quite a challenge for you. Were you nervous before you started shooting?

JL: A little bit, but I liked the character of Black Cat, of the girl, so I feel I can accept the challenge.

BL: What kind of training did you have to undertake to prepare for the film?

JL: I did about three months training in Chinese kung fu, reactions, falls, weight training and so on. It was very hard!

BL: Obviously you carry off the action in the film very well, but, given the quality of the Chinese action directors, that probably wasn’t as hard as pulling off the acting side of the part. Did you have any acting lessons?

JL: No. Not one. On the set, the director prepares me and shows me how to act.

BL: A lot of people have said that Black Cat is very similar to La Femme Nikita. Est-ce-que tu connais cette filme?

JL: Oui. Je connais. I think that our Chinese film and this French film are not the same. The story has some similarities, but the way the story is told is different. Also, I think I play the character differently from the way the actress plays Nikita…

BL: You’re certainly a lot prettier than Anne Parrillaud…

JL: (giggling): Merci beaucoups!

BL: Both films are highly stylised in terms of the action and the violence, which is another reason people might compare them. Black Cat is a intense movie, and your character in it is a very extreme one. Do you find it easy to come off that level of intensity, or do you come off the set, go home and beat up the boyfriend?

JL: When I finish filming, I’m too tired to beat up anybody! The whole production took only one and half months to shoot. So my schedule was very tight. I’m in virtually every scene, so I didn’t have many rest days. Out of forty-five days, I worked every day! Sixteen hours for one day, I work! As you know, the film is set in Canada, in Hong Kong, in the U.S and in Japan, so, in each country, we have a different crew. However, in every country, I’m still working every day, with no rest!

BL: In the film, your character is a ruthless killer, but, in person, you’re obviously very nice and quiet and normal. How do you generate that kind of assassin mind set?

JL: That’s what acting is all about! I like acting, and I really liked the fact that the character was so extreme. It made it more fun! Sometimes, the girls in Hong Kong films are just there for the hero, you know?

BL: On-screen and off from what I hear…

JL: I loved playing such a violent role. It’s a real change for a girl in a Hong Kong movie.

BL: So how did you perfect your ‘mean’ look for Black Cat?

JL: Before shooting, I look in the mirror and try for the right expression. Then, when we’re filming, I try to remember how that look feels.

BL: Were you injured during filming?

JL: Everywhere except my face was injured.

BL: How they can beat upon such a beautiful body… (Jade giggles.) When you see the film now, which is your favourite scene?

JL: I like the first part very much. Everything until we go back to Hong Kong. You have seen the film?

BL: Yes. Betty screened it for me the other day. How was it working with my old friend Simon Yam? I made a film with him in England.

JL: He’s very good. He’s a good actor, and he taught me a lot. He’s like my big brother!

BL: He’s a cool guy…

JL: No. No. He’s very nice. He’s a very sweet guy. Actually, I think every girl is attracted to him.

BL: Yes. I meant he looks cool! Everyone knows Simon is really a pussycat. When you’re not filming, what do you like to do?

JL: I go to the gym every day, to work out for about two hours. Otherwise, I stay at home and watch videos or listen to music.

BL: You know, that’s exactly what Jackie Chan says he does when he’s not working! And we all think you guys have such wild lifestyles… One reason that Black Cat has become so notorious so fast is that its one of the first of this new kind of Category 3 action film. It’s mature in the way that an American action film is. How does it feel to be the symbol of this new wave of Chinese action actresses?

JL: It’s different from the kind of female action heroes we have had before, like Michelle Khan and Yeung Ly Tsing. So far, I’m the only one who can do this, and be a kung fu star and, I suppose, some kind of sex symbol. It doesn’t worry me at all. It was such a great part in Black Cat, but I know I can go on to play different kinds of roles.

BL: I know the nudity in Black Cat is still very low key compared to an American film, but it must still be quite difficult to do, especially in a Hong Kong movie, where mainstream films tend to be so puritanical with regard to the female form.

JL: I didn’t do the nude scenes deliberately to shock people, or to make my name. They were part of the script and I knew that when I accepted the role. As I’d been a model before, I’m not too self-conscious about my body, so I didn’t find it too embarrassing. Also, it was shot very discreetly. Also, Thomas Lam, who plays my lover in the film, was very gentle. You know the scene in the jacuzzi? He says to me before filming: “Okay, in this scene, I act like your boyfriend, and then, afterwards, we just forget about it.” He was very professional, and that helped a lot.

BL: I think that viewers in the West might be a little disappointed if they expect some hard raunch in Black Cat, because it really is very soft…

JL: Will it be the equivalent of a Category 3 when it’s released in Britain?

BL: Yes, but for the violence, not for the nudity or sexual situations. We get stronger stuff on TV over there. Jade, what will your next film be?

JL: Probably Black Cat 2.

BL: What a startlingly original title! I believe you’re signed to a six year contract with D&B…?

JL: Yes.
BL: And how old are you now?
JL: Twenty-two.

BL: Wow. Do you have a set number of films each year in your contract?

JL: Three films a year.

BL: Three films a year for six years! We’re going to be seeing a lot of you, and hopefully in more ways than one…

JL: (giggling): You’re bad!

BL: What was the funniest thing that happened during the shooting of Black Cat?

JL: Well, you know the scene where Thomas and I aim rolling aroundon the table? The kissing scene? We n.g. (no good shot) over thirty times! We kept rolling out of shot of the camera. Afterwards, both our lips are really red, from my lipstick!

BL: I think he was n.g.-ing on purpose. What kind of films do you like to watch? Chinese or American?

JL: American movies.
BL: Who’s your favourite American actor or actress?
JL: I like Julia Roberts very much…

BL: Really? I hear she may be playing the lead in the American version of Nikita. So, something you have in common with Julia Roberts!

JL: I don’t think of Black Cat as the Chinese version of Nikita

BL: Well, a lot of people do. Amy Tsui (wife of director Tsui Siu Ming) was telling me that they planned to make a Chinese version of I.a Femme Nikita, but that they abandoned it because you guys got there first! (Jade’s pager beeps for the the umpteenth time during the interview) You know, for someone who’s not working at the moment, you get an awful lot of pager messages. Must be all your boyfriends…

JL: No, it’s not my boyfriends!

BL: Well it ouqht to be! Seriously I wouldn’t worry about Black Cat being compared with Nikita. It stands up surprisingly well, and I think you should worry more if Nikita had been a bad movie. If you could work with any director in Hong Kong, or any actor, who would it be?

JL: I would like to do a film with the actress Gong Li, you know, from Raise the Red Lantern?, and with her boyfriend, the director Chang Yee Mo. They’re both from Mainland China, and I really like their work.

BL: A real jump from Black Cat to Raise the Red Lantern! Which American director and actor would you like to work with?

JL: Al Pacino, Julia Roberts and, for director, Martin Scorsese!

BL: The Black Cat, the Pretty Woman, the Godfather and the director of Goodfellas and Raging Bull… That’s going to be quite a movie! You do some kung fu fighting in Black Cat. Have you kept that up since the movie?

JL No. Like most action actors here, I just learn on the set. Actually, for movies, you don’t need to go to a kwoon and learn from a sifu, but, if you want to fight for real, then you have to do that. Right now, I just go to the gym to do weights…

BL: What’s the Jade Leung Workout consist of?

JL: Swimming, to build up muscle tone, and aerobics, to lose weight, then all kind of weight training exercises to tone my muscles. All kind of things!

BL: Most Hong Kong actresses have pretty bad reputations in terms of their private life. Are you aware of this, and do you take steps to avoid it?

JL: I have my own lifestyle. I don’t care what other people do. I do my own thing!

BL: So a second Black Cat movie is definite?

JL: I think so, yes. We hope to shoot part of it in Russia. We should start early next year.

BL: Would you like to came to England some’ to meet all the fans you’re going to have after Black Cat is released?

JL: Yes. I’d love to come to England and I’ve never been there. I plan to come over next year, because I want to improve my English

BL: We could run a competition in the the magazine ‘Adopt Black Cat For A Month’. The winner could have you stay with them, and they could teach English! Good idea?

JL: (giggling): Yes! Great! You’re crazy..!

BL: So they tell me. Jade, good luck with Black Cat 2, and thanks for taking time out for this interview.

JL: Thank you very much.

(Thanks to D’n’B’s Betty Chan for her usual gracious assistance, and to the Kowloon Sheraton for, as ever, playing host to my rap session with Deeb’s latest lethal lady.)

Xena: Warrior Princess

“X(ena) marks the spot.”

“In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero.
She was Xena: a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle.
The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world.”

Xena is one of the definitive action-heroine shows of all time. Originally appearing as a supporting character in a three-episode story arc on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which she abandons her life as a warlord and opts instead to fight for good, as a way of making amends for her life. The producers opted to develop her as a spin-off, and the show ran for six seasons between 1995 and 2001, ending in a two-part finale (the review of which, below, was written first, hence it somewhat duplicates the overview here). It proved highly-popular for a show with no designated network home, pulling an audience in syndication of up to 7.8 million viewers during its second season, and inspiring a devoted fanbase that persists, even a decade after the show has come to an end.

I am not, apparently, the only person to remember the show fondly, and it is an important precursor to subsequent entries, both on television and in film. Joss Whedon has apparently credited the show with blazing the trail later followed by Buffy – not least in its musical episode, “Bitter Suite,” which was an obvious influence on “Once More, With Feeling”. The creator of Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino, was also a fan of the show; as documented in Double Dare, he hired Lawless’s stunt double, Zoe Bell, to double for Uma Thurmann in his two movies.

Central to its success was the marvellously-named Lucy Lawless, a New Zealand actress who was, surprisingly, not the first choice for the role. It was originally Vanessa Angel, but she fell sick and was unable to take part – and the rest is, as they say, history. Lawless simply looks the part, possessing an undeniable physical presence. Unlike many heroines, it’s very easy to believe she genuinely looks like she could kick your ass! Add cheekbones that could cut class, plus a smile giving the impression she was perpetually one step ahead of you, so don’t even think about it, and you have the perfect person for the character.

Alongside Xena is Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), who represents the moral compass of the show. Gabrielle left her home in a (mostly) peaceful village, to pursue a life of adventure with Xena, but became as much a spiritual adviser as sidekick. While certainly possessing the potential to be immensely irritating, in a Jiminy Cricket kind of way, she did perhaps have a more interesting character arc, described by one writer as “from a spunky kid into an idealistic fighter who didn’t kill, then a total pacifist, and finally a formidable but battle-weary warrior.”

Both the setting and the approaches taken to the storytelling are, to be honest, all over the place. The locations roam from Greece to China, the period could be anywhere over a spell of several centuries, and the dialogue is absolutely late-20th rather than even remotely classical. Similarly, the tone, even within a single episode, can leap from drama to pathos to comedy to a slugfest, without pausing for breath. It’s an approach which is difficult to pull off: even Hercules, from much the same creators, often seemed forced or trite, but Xena manages, by and large, to get away with its cheerful disregard to historical veracity and consistency of atmosphere. That it’s clearly not intended to be take seriously, is clear from the sound effects, where even a turning of Xena’s head is accompanied by a “Whoosh!”

There was enormous, often ferocious debate among fandom over the nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, some asserting they were a lesbian couple. While both showed plenty of evidence of heterosexuality, there was a lot of content open to interpretation – much of it absolutely deliberate, and known as “subtext” in Xena fandom. I never found it convincing. My issue with it was not one of sexuality, simply compatibility: Xena and Gabrielle were absolute opposites, in background, upbringing, personality and approach. They just didn’t “fit” each other, from what I could see, and there was no chemistry visible. Xena and Hercules: I could see that. Xena and the Queen of the Amazons: no problem there either. But Xena and Gabrielle? Sorry. Not buying this. It also played into the stereotype that any strong woman has to be a lesbian.

The ongoing discussions screaming matches in Xena fandom about this, as nicely documented in this piece, is largely what drove me away [s’funny, those screeching about tolerance often proved remarkably intolerant of others’ views]. Eventually from the show itself, as the makers opted to pander towards this vocal subset with increasing frequency, too often investing the show with elements which felt taken from a soap-opera. The finale was the only episode of that season I’d even seen. But the memories of the show remained, and when I discovered it on Netflix, I decided it was time to go back and watch the series. All 134 episodes. From the beginning. Seemed like a good idea at the time…

I’ll be covering them a season at a time. If you’re interested in more details, my notes can be found over on our forum, covering each episode in a bit more depth, with a pic from each.

Star: Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor, Ted Raimi, Hudson Leick

  • Xena: Warrior Princess season one

    Originally screened: September 1995

    It’s assumed viewers are at least somewhat familiar with Xena’s background, as she is first seen burying her armour in an effort to bury her past. Of course, this is about as successful as it usually is in fiction, and it’s not long before she’s saving villagers, including Gabrielle, from slavery. That includes an aerial battle atop platforms, which is the first sign of the show’s strong influence from Hong Kong action films; it was using wirework, in a way that predated its popular arrival in Hollywood. Similarly, the stunning New Zealand locations foreshadow Lord of the Rings, to the extent that I kept expecting to see hobbits gamboling along in Xena’s wake.

    There is a sense that the makers were still feeling their way to some extent, not quite certain how the relationships would work out, and the characters develop as the actors grew into them. The same goes for the action; especially early on, the doubling is clunkily shot, and Lawless is obviously not doing as much of her own work. The improvement over the course of the season was palpable, and by the end, both Xena and the stunt players had got a much better handle on the subtleties required. That said, I always had to wince when Xena would cartwheel her way into a situation – wouldn’t, oh, running have been quicker?

    There are some good guest appearances; Tim Thomerson plays a mercenary on the downside of his fame and career [think True Grit in ancient Greece], and we also see Karl Urban, who’d go on to play Bones in the Star Trek reboot. The best of these, however, is Bruce Campbell in “The Royal Couple of Thieves”. Show producer Rob Tapert was one of the producers of The Evil Dead, so has known Campbell for years, and used him to play Autolycus, the self-proclaimed King of Thieves. Xena demands his help to recover a potentially lethal religious relic, stolen from its owners, so the two have to pair up. The dialogue and coming timing here is great, and the same goes for “Warrior… Princess…” which sees Lawless play both Xena, and her look-alike, flighty princess Diana. It’s a startling demonstration of Lucy’s genuine talent as an actress.

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    The best episode, however, is about as far from comedy as the show gets. I write a good deal more about it over on the forum, but it centers on Callisto, who watched her family die in a fire during a raid by Xena’s army, back when she was bad. Now, Callisto has set out to destroy Xena from the ground up. Featuring an amazingly psychotic performance from Hudson Leick as Callisto, it goes to prove that every great hero needs a great villain, and Callisto is the Joker to Xena’s Dark Knight. They play two sides of the same coin, Callisto pointing out that Xena has never been brought to justice for all her past crimes.

    Callisto is much further gone into the insanity abyss, as this speech she gives to Xena shows. “You let me go, and I will dedicate my life to killing everything you’ve loved: your friends, your family, your reputation, even your horse. You see, I am being so honest with you, because the idea of your pity is worse than death for me. You created a monster with integrity, Xena. Scary, isn’t it?” The show builds to a great battle between the two (above), inspired by a similar fight Jet Li had in Once Upon a Time in China. Watching this again… Yeah, I see why I loved the show!

    Season 1: Top 5 episodes

    # Jim IMDB voting
    1. Callisto Callisto
    2. The Royal Couple of Thieves Prometheus
    3. Warrior… Princess… Sins of the Past
    4. Sins of the Past The Greater Good
    5. Altared States Warrior… Princess…
  • Xena: Warrior Princess season two

    Originally screened: September 1996

    The defining moment of Xena’s sophomore season didn’t take place in any episode. In fact, it didn’t even take place in New Zealand, but thousands of miles away, During a rehearsal for an appearance on The Tonight show with Jay Leno, Lucy Lawless was thrown off a horse after it lost its footing, and broke her pelvis. It’s interesting to compare the reaction of the producers to what the Tapert/Raimi team did when the star of Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, was similarly a victim of severe misfortune, more than a decade later. There, they put the show entirely on hold and opted instead to film a prequel without him.

    Now, it’s not quite identical: Whitfield had cancer, which unfortunately proved fatal, and shooting had not commenced on his second series. Still, one wonders if, in hindsight, it might have been better – for the viewer at least – had the show gone on hiatus, rather than trying to (literally) limp along, with an action star incapable of doing any action for most of its run. Oh, you certainly have to admire the creative way in which everyone worked around it: rewriting an episode here, inserting a body swap there. But having Hudson Leick pretending to be Xena trapped in Callisto’s body, is like having Sir Anthony Hopkins play Clarice Sterling inside Hannibal Lecter. While I’m a huge Callisto mark, even I have to say, it completely negates the whole point.

    With Lawless’s limitations, the show was largely forced back on to the supporting characters post-fall, and that’s a bit of a mixed bag. Leick was better at being bad than being good, and Bruce Campbell was reliable as ever. But both Renee O’Connor and Ted Raimi were overexposed, and although they are fine in light comedy, they are just not capable of carrying a show from a dramatic point of view. Still, there were some solid episodes, my personal favorite being a successor to Warrior… Princess, giving Lawless three characters of disparate tone to juggle, and she does so magnificently. Despite general loathing in the fan community, I also enjoyed the Christmas episode, A Solstice Carol, for its loopy inventiveness. I mean… hula-hooping?

    There’s no doubt that the subtext between Xena and Gabrielle was more explicitly brought out in this series, with several sequences in various episodes that are clearly there purely to tease the fans. However, by the end of the seasons, there seems to have been a certain feeling, among some creators at least, that this had run its course. For instance, writer Chris Manheim said, “We kind of backpedaled a lot on all that [subtext]. I don’t know whether it’s getting read in no matter what we write. But I think we’ve said “Ah, we’ve had our run at that,” and just concentrate on other aspects of their relationship. Whatever people read into it they do… You can only do that so much before it gets to be old hat and kind of tired.”

    In terms of style and approach, the show covers even more ground here than the first time, from absolutely froth to grim darkness. Xena even gets crucified by Julius Caesar in one episode [confusingly, the actor responsible also crops up later, playing Cupid, complete with fluffy wings…]. I’m sure I’m not the only one who found themselves whistling Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, during the scene shown above right. Another unwitting Python reference is the wretched Here She Comss, Miss Amphipolis, a dreadful tale of drag-queen empowerment, featuring perhaps the least convincing female impersonator since John Cleese put on a dress – as on the left, watch that Adam’s apple bob….

    Having Xena wander round a beauty pageant, defusing tensions between both competitors and organizers, seems to represent both the most desperate and transparent effort by the makers to save her pelvis, and the nadir of the series thus far. [Though producer Steven Sears said that episode was unaffected, it’s hard to believe such a woeful installment was as originally intended, and Manheim said the story “came about partly because…Lucy couldn’t fight much.”] While the underlying cause was unfortunate and certainly outside the makers’ control, their reaction seemed more concerned with contractual obligation than show quality, and it’s hard to deny the resulting, significant drop-off in standards which can be seen post-accident in this series.

    Season 2: Top 5 episodes

    # Jim IMDB voting
    1. Warrior… Princess… Tramp A Day In The Life
    2. Return of Callisto Ten Little Warlords
    3. A Solstice Carol Return of Callisto
    4. Intimate Strangers A Necessary Evil
    5. A Necessary Evil Warrior… Princess… Tramp
  • Xena: Warrior Princess series finale

    “Get your yi-yi’s out.”

    I used to be a Xena fan; for the first couple of series, I was a die-hard, never missed an episode, bought the merchandise, went to the gatherings, etc. I loved (with one exception) the supporting cast – Joxer, Ares, Autolycus – and still reckon Callisto remains one of the great TV villainesses of all time.

    But the dynamic of the series slowly changed; Xena’s irritating sidekick, Gabrielle, started getting more screen time, and it became more of a relationship-based show than the action/humour cross which I knew and loved. Finally, around the end of Series 3, I gave up (I think the musical episode was a watershed – as with Buffy); not even the news that the series was ending could lure me back, and the finale in Summer 2001 passed me by. It even took me a month to decide to pick up the DVD, and then it was only ‘cos I had a Best Buy gift card burning a hole in my pocket. But I’m glad I did, as it’s an ending fit for a warrior princess.

    Warning: the following, of necessity, contains extreme spoilers for the show’s end. Readers are advised not to proceed if they wish to avoid such knowledge.

    Let’s get the spoiler out of the way first: the original title for this review was, Oh My God – They Killed Xena! You Bastards!, but wiser counsel prevailed. To screams of fury from the Hard Core Nut Balls (as Lawless herself once described the more extreme fans), Xena died. And this time, it was permanent – something of a change for a show in which fatality was previously only a minor inconvenience. Indeed, one of the problems was there was no longer any tension, characters having come back from the grave so many times, even death no longer had a sting. The reason for the reaction, it seems, was less the actual death, than the separation of Xena and Gabrielle. For a small but extremely vociferous part of fandom invested the relationship between those two with far more than the actresses (and most of the creators) intended. These “subtexters” wanted to see the two walk off into the sunset, hand-in-hand – probably sporting crew cuts and Birkenstocks too, if you catch my drift. The makers sometimes jokily acknowledged these obsessives, which was perhaps like trying to put a fire out by throwing petrol on it.

    The things which made them dislike the finale were, perhaps, the ones why I enjoyed it. I was never bothered by the concept of a Xena being a lesbian, it was just the idea that whiny waste of space Gabrielle was her partner which I found inconceivable: sidekick, yes; love interest, no. The finale largely downplayed Gabrielle’s role: she was entirely absent from the half told in flashback, concerning a previous adventure back when Xena was, shall we say, “morally independent”.  This created the drive for the film. The incident in question saw Xena ransoming a Japanese girl – forming a bond with her which certainly has subtextual elements of its own. But it all went horribly wrong, and Xena caused – albeit inadvertently – the deaths of 40,000 people. Now, the only way for her to find redemption is to kill the demon which consumed their souls…but the only way to do that is to become a ghost herself. While there’s the usual escape clause, at the end we discover that any return to life would condemn the souls forever; Xena is not prepared to do this, and so remains dead into eternity.

    xenafinLike the series itself, the finale veered wildly between the fabulous and the questionable, vacuuming up influences like Tarantino on speed. From Japan: Kwaidan, Shogun Assassin and Akira Kurosawa. From Hong Kong: A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman. From the West: The Evil Dead and Sergio Leone – the former makes sense, since director Tapert produced that classic slice of low-budget horror. Fortunately, it has a lot of its own to admire, rather than being a series of homages; the story is great, and the acting largely excellent.

    The highlight is probably Xena’s death, a five-minute sequence of harrowing intensity featuring a never-ending hail of arrows, into which our heroine struggles, intent on finding a warrior’s death. It’s a fabulous combination of effects and acting, which would be worthy of any movie – at the end, there’s a mass exhalation of breath, as you realise that those who live by the sharp, pointy object, die by the sharp, pointy object. It’s entirely fitting, and if the show had ended there, I’d have had no complaints. The actual climax is clunky and contrived in comparison, though the shock value present remains huge, since you confidently expect the revival of Xena, right up until the credits roll.

    On the downside are various, jarring inaccuracies: Xena’s ghost hugs Gabrielle but is incapable of holding her chakram (the “round killing thing”, if you didn’t know); some of the “samurai” possess blatant New Zealand accents; a giant explosion implies the medieval Japanese possessed nuclear weapons (given the location, this is in somewhat dubious taste). If Xena really cared for Gabrielle, why send her on a wild-goose chase of resurrection, when Xena knew it wouldn’t happen? Why did Gabrielle pause to get a full-back tattoo first, before going off on this, presumably somewhat urgent, quest? These are clumsy and obvious flaws which could/should have been corrected.

    It still remains a brave and uncompromising finale, in an era when “final” is usually about the last word you’d use to describe them. While the door is not completely closed – not in a milieu where humans can become immortal and then get killed anyway – in all likelihood it is the end of Xena, and marks the close of her chapter. From a beginning as a minor character on another show, she became a cultural icon; whatever you may think of the series, its important place in female action heroine history cannot be denied.

    Dir: Rob Tapert
    Stars: Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor

Velvet Gloves

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This film is a 90-minute explanation of why Jade Leung’s star never took off. While some decisions Michelle Yeoh made might have been questionable, at least her films were rarely boring, and never down to the level of this piece of tedious dreck. It depicts the struggles of a class of policewomen (including Jade), to become part of the elite. The idea certainly has potential – the Inspector Wears Skirts series has a similar premise – but here, there is almost no character given to any of the girls; they all blur into each other, like a dozen GI Jane-wannabes.

The director – whoever they may be, since the credits were all in Chinese, and the Internet offers limited assistance either – also seems to believe that if two minutes of the ladies taking on an assault course is good, ten minutes must be better. Another example is the seven-day forced march, which feels like it was filmed in real time, and screws up the most obvious opportunity for tension. It does lead to a somewhat interesting sequence, where three of the women have to last two minutes fighting martial-arts instructors, to avoid getting kicked out. But there is no flow to the plot at all – it lurches from set-piece to set-piece without cohesion or progression. All of which would be tolerable if the action elements weren’t handled in such a lacklustre fashion, but there’s nothing here to write home about, except in a “PS. Obvious stunt doubling” kind of way.

For some strange reason, this film appears to be unavailable on DVD – should you want to see it (and if you do, I’ve clearly failed in my mission here), you’ll have to see the VCD, with its illegible subtitles and a plot synopsis which shakes hands and parts company with the truth after the first sentence. It opts to visit the land of Wild Fabrication instead, continuing: “Before graduation, the team is called to handle a hostage situation in a jewelry expo. Afterwards the girls are assigned to as the bodyguard of the first lady of a small country. But the first lady’s own rebellious guard kidnaps her and executes one of the girls…” There’s not a single word of truth there: the movie finishes – abruptly – on graduation day, after yet another training mission.

But if you know what film that synopsis actually describes, do let me know, because it’s almost certainly far more interesting and entertaining than this one. It may not be the worst action heroine film I’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the worst ever to come out of Hong Kong, which usually does such things with a certain degree of invention, enthusiasm and energy. None of these are visible here, in any amount.

Dir: Billy Chan Wui-Ngai
Stars: Jade Leung, Bobby Au, Farini Cheung, Zhang Fengyi