The Vanquisher trailer

Thailand seems to be going through what the Hong Kong movie industry did in the eighties – a sudden discovery of action heroines. Chocolate paved the way – we’ll be covering the latest film of its star, JeeJa Vismistananda, next month – but others appear to be leaping on the bandwagon. Here’s a trailer for The Vanquisher [even if the trailer gets that spelled wrong!]. Looks kinda promising.

The Avengers (film)

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“An object lesson on all the things which can go very, very wrong on the journey from script to screen.”

Film-makers really need to let the sixties go, especially when it comes to mining TV schedules and turning them into movies. The Mod Squad, Thunderbirds, Wild Wild West: the remainder bins in Walmart are littered with the DVD corpses of failed attempts. While it’d be a massive stretch to call this incoherent mess anything like a success, it does have some merits, not least in the casting of Fiennes and Thurman as John Steed and Emma Peel. If undeniably different to Patrick McNee and [insert your favourite original actress here], it still works, despite the unfortunate efforts to shoehorn in a romantic relationship between the pair; one of the things that made the original series work was the lack of this, with Steed and Peel being strictly business. Thurman, in particular, appears to be working her way towards The Bride territory, with a similarly wide range of funky costumes. In that light, much of her performance makes a great deal more sense.

Sadly, very little else of the movie does, though one wonders how familiar those whose reviews ripped into it were, with the original series – things like henchmen in teddy-bear costumes would fit in there, yet seem idiotic in isolation. The version as released was hacked down from 150 minutes to 89, and I suspect much of the excised footage is in the middle, since that’s where what remains falls apart completely. Sir August de Wynter (Connery) has taken control of the weather, and is using this to blackmail the world’s governments. It’s up to our suave, sophisticated duo to stop him: Peel goes up top to defuse the controlling device, while Steed stays down low, to face de Wynter in hand-to-hand combat. This might have worked better, if I didn’t keep thinking, “Sean Connery is five years older than my Dad.” While there is more to the plot than this, it’s an aspect of the film where more cutting would likely have been welcome.

The style is nicely captured, and Peel stands as the equal of Steed, in no way secondary or subservient to him, as is shown in a marvellous sword-fight between the two. Thurman has no problem at all handling the action side of things, and we even get two Umas for the price of one, thanks to a cloning subplot which is never fully developed or explained [part of the hour left on the cutting-room floor, I suspect]. It seems that the individual pieces were all in place: however, the disaster movie which resulted [budget, $60m; US box-office, $23m] shows that the road to cinematic hell is paved with good intentions.

Dir: Jeremiah Chechik
Star: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent

Supporting Actresses

“Sidekicks with guns…”

The power of the action heroine is such, that the character often appears in films as support to a male hero – sometimes without any particular justification beyond the fact that it’s cool. Even movies which you’re watching for other reasons can provide a pleasant surprise in these terms. This piece provides pointers towards some of the more interesting examples.

The Chronicles of Riddick. A survivor from the previous film, Pitch Black, “Jack” turned out to be a young girl, who disguised her sex in order to survive. Five years later, she’s now played by Alexa Davalos (right), and her character, who has taken bad-ass Riddick as a role-model, is now imprisoned in a subterranean jail on the aptly-named planet of Crematoria. Her favourite game is, “Who’s the best killer?”; when she’s accompanying Riddick, opportunities to play are numerous.

Eight Legged Freaks. In this cheerful update of the 50’s giant insect picture, Kari Wuhrer plays the local sheriff; while eventually giving way to David Arquette for the final confrontation in the spiders’ lair, she holds her own for much of the movie, dispatching arachnids with style, flair and a Buffy-esque bit of crossbowing.

Formula 51. Samuel L. Jackson plays a chemist, trying to sell his new concotion to various interested parties in Britain. His former employer, the Lizard, unhappy by the defection, sets Dakota (Emily Mortimer) on him – she is a British hitwoman, working off her debt to the Lizard. But back on her old turf, she discovers an old flame is involved, and is still burning brightly for her…

Hero. This Jet Li vehicle, nominated for the 2003 Best Foreign Film Oscar, features both Maggie Cheung and Zhang Yi-Yi, the former as one of three assassins out to kill the king, the latter as the pupil of another member of the trio. One of the highlights of the movie is a full-on battle between the two, which is not a long way short of Zhang’s classic Crouching Tiger duel with Michelle Yeoh.

House of the Dead. This critically slated video-game conversion offers three supporting action heroines behind its extremely dull hero. There’s his girlfriend, fencing mistress Alicia (Ona Grauer, left), Coastguard officer Casper (Ellie Cornell), and Liberty, an Asian-American in a patriotic outfit who (like all Asians) knows kung-fu. Sadly, two out of three don’t make it to the end.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As the evil Queen Jadis, who has sunk Narnia into perpetual winter, Tilda Swinton kicks surprising ass, with a sword that turns anything it touches to stone – and she captures the seductive appeal of the dark side wonderfully well. The final battle against the forces of good sees her wielding two swords to good effect as she leads her army against Aslan’s troops. You go, girl…

Mr. Brooks. On the trail of Kevin Costner’s serial-killing family-man is Detective Tracy Atwood, who is simultaneously dealing with a messy divorce and the escape of another serial-killer she helped put away, known as The Hangman. When Brooks kills her ex-husband, she is the suspect, and her partner is told to arrest Atwood. She disarms him handily, and courtesy of information from Brooks, who is somewhat fascinated by her, heads off to an impressive fire-fight in a darkened corridor with the Hangman and his accomplice.

Patriot Games. One of the members of the IRA splinter group is female terrorist Annette (Polly Walker); not actually Irish, she still manages to off a suspected dissident (after having sex with him, of course) with a double tap, before heading off to a North African terrorist training camp, and taking part on the final assault on Jack Ryan’s house. Oh, and her cover is a rare book dealer too.

Rambo: First Blood Part II. Among the most macho movies of all time, we note with interest the presence of Co Bao (Julia Nickson-Soul) as his local guide, who goes through just about everything he does in the jungle. Of course – and this isn’t a spoiler, since it’s painfully obvious – she’s doomed from the start. About the only cliche of the soon-to-be-dead that she doesn’t get to use is taking a picture of her family out, and saying how she looks forward to seeing them again soon…

Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The character of Sarah Connor (right) underwent a startling transformation between original and sequel – a wimpy fraidy-cat became a pumped, focused, extremely capable action heroine, intent on defending her son. Though she ends up relying on Arnie in the final steel-mill battle (which includes Linda Hamilton’s twin sister), she definitely gives the T-1000 her best shot. Several of them, in fact. The next logical step followed, in Terminator 3, where Schwarzenegger faced a female cyborg.

Thir13en Ghosts. The most notable thing about this family-trapped-in-a-haunted-house flick is the wonderful set design, on which they clearly spent more time and effort, than trivial things like plot or characterisation. But Embeth Davidtz turns up in the second half, flinging flares at the errant spooks with no lack of confident competence. She delivers a pleasantly no-nonsense performance until she gets, er, squeezed out of the picture.

Total Recall. While Arnold Schwarzenegger movies are rarely places where female characters do more than hang around, in need of rescuing – though see Terminator 2 above – this has not one, but two action heroines, in Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and Lori (Sharon Stone). The former is a Martian rebel, the latter an administration agent who masquerades as the hero’ wife; they’re opposites in almost every way: good/bad, brunette/blonde, demure/sleazy. Melina saves Arnie’s butt on a couple of occasions, and there’s also a fine brawl between Ticotin and Stone which avoids the usual catfight cliches.

The Transporter 2 – Having thoroughly enjoyed The Transporter, the sequel was already well on the radar. But what we didn’t expect was some serious GWG action, with the psychotic henchwoman (Katie Nauta, pictured left) going berserk in a doctor’s office with two automatic weapons simultaneously. She also rides shotgun after taking our hero hostage on a startling chase through the streets of Miami and, inevitably, faces off against him while her boss makes his escape by helicopter. This finale is a little shorter and softer than expected, but in a film where we were expecting nothing but macho heroics, the mere presence of an action villainess was a pleasant and unexpected bonus.

Van Helsing – From a vampire (Underworld) to vampire-huntress: up until the arrival of Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) Kate Beckinsale’s gypsy was the last hope of her family and their mission to kill count Dracula. While the guys face off (in a fiesta of somewhat-unconvincing CGI, it has to be said), she has plenty to cope with, in the form of the multiple vampire brides, who can fly, and have superhuman strength, in addition to the usual fangs. Undead catfight! Do have to say, her fate is somewhat disappointing, however.

Zombieland – Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin both give as good as they get from Woody Harrelson and Jason Eisenberg in this post-apocalyptic tale. Initially, it’s a battle of the sexes, with the young women outsmarting the men and taking their vehicle and weapons – then doing it again, for good measure! However, they eventually team up, as they head across country, in an America that is now inhabited almost entirely by the ravenous undead. If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll know that extreme violence is the only way to deal with zombies, and the ladies are every bit as happy to unleash their weaponry as the gentlemen.

The Witches Hammer

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“Hammer time!”

If never quite escaping its low-budget roots, or producing enough compensations or fresh imagination to make you forgive them, this is a robust enough vehicle and a decent entry in a sadly-small sub-genre: British girls-with-guns. It’s perhaps closest to the 1998 movie, Razor Blade Smile – which I really should get round to covering here, except it was pretty freakin’ awful. Similarly, Hammer involves a vampire assassin, though you can also lob in a shedload of other influences, conscious or otherwise, from Buffy, through Nikita to Bloody Mallory. If originality is not the movie’s strong suit, it is at least stealing from some of the best action heroines.

Rebecca (Coulter) is resurrected from the dead by a secret (government?) program, Project 571. They turn her into a vampire, giving her enhanced speed, reflexes, strength, agility, etc. – with the downside that she’s explode into flames if she goes out in daylight. After one assignment, she discovers her handlers have been killed, but is contact by Madeline (Beacham), who runs the imaginatively-named Project 572. Together with sidekick Edward (Sidgwick), she is sent to retrieve a mystical tome a the necessary first-step to slay the head vampire, Hugo (Dover), who… Ok, I’m somewhat hazy on the specifics, but he’s the bad guy, alright? Rebecca has to martially-art her way through an ever more dangerous series of witches, vampires and self-replicating ninjas (I assure you, it’ll make sense when you see the movie, to the point where you’ll probably go, “Oh! Self-replicating ninjas! That’s what Jim meant…”) until the final encounter with what a certain action heroine would certainly call The Big Bad.

Pluses? It’s actually shot on 35mm – while HD video has become the staple of low-budget cinema, it still doesn’t have quite the same feel as film, and the atmosphere here benefits as a result. Stephanie Beacham is magnificent, possessing a calm assurance that is marvellous to watch: she breezes through her scenes like a galleon at full sail, befitting her status as a genre icon. And the little and large duo of vampire, Oscar and Charlotte, are entirely endearing – their moments of comic relief work very nicely. [The idea of a midget vampire has been used before, as anyone who saw the truly appalling Ankle Biters will know.] The digital effects are nicely done too, with the vampires collapsing into a shower of glowing sparks, in a way that would also gladden the heart of Sunnydale’s favourite slayer.

Minuses? There’s a certain unevenness of tone which doesn’t quite work. At various moments, the film wants to be exciting, poignant, self-aware, slapsticky and dramatic: these individual moments work with varying degrees of success, and the combination, with the frequent gear-changes which result, occasionally seem clunky. Camp also needs to be played completely straight to work, and that isn’t always the case here. Hayes is over-fond of flashbacks: there are at least four here, and that’s probably three more than are necessary, with the only truly significant back-story belonging to Kitanya, the Russian witch who supposedly wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, the magic book which everyone seeks. As noted above, Eaves doesn’t really bring much new to the show: if you can find a review that doesn’t mention, say, Blade, your Google-fu is stronger than mine, and it is a very obvious comparison.

Coulter is acceptable in the central role – she reminded me most of Yancy Butler from Witchblade. She just doesn’t have quite the right attitude for a supposedly ruthless killer: Olivia Bonamy, in Bloody Mallory, brought the appropriate level in such things, such as her gloves with FUCK EVIL on them. Coulter is a shrinking wallflower in comparison, and this is shown in a sequence where she’s rescued from a morgue by one of her Project 571 colleagues. Rebecca clings on to the sheet with an obvious death-grip, rather than showing any skin, almost keeping it up to her neck. Hard to imagine a stone-cold assassin caring too much about nudity in front of another woman, and a less coy approach would perhaps be more appropriate.

The action is solid, if generally short of spectacular. There doesn’t seem to be much doubling of Coulter – or if there is, it’s not obvious. She get to use a selection of weapons, which adds a nice sense of variety; from swords through staffs to the F-sized rail-gun pictured top left (even if the cartridges being ejected were rather too obviously digital), Kris Tanaka was the action choreographer, and also appeared as one of the vampires near the end; it’s clear he knows his stuff. I’m not quite so sure Eaves does, as the editing of the sequences – for which he is also responsible – seems to be choppy and occasionally difficult to follow, though not to the level of MTV-style editing, the bane of my life as a viewer.

This was probably better than I expected it to be. The low-budget is not often obvious, and there are enough moments of charm to tide you over the less successful elements and make up for a certain lack of genuine freshness. Finally, despite the director’s protestations to the contrary, I’m still fairly sure there’s an apostrope missing from the title, which would only be grammatically correct in a context such as “The witches hammer at the door.” Eaves claims the apostrophe-less version is an accurate translation of Malleus Maleficarum, let’s just say, Wikipedia begs to differ. It probably doesn’t matter as much as I find it does, but while we can expect apostrophically-chalenged titles from Hollywood (I’m looking at you, Two Weeks Notice), good grammar costs nothing. ;-)

Dir: James Eaves
Star: Claudia Coulter, Jon Sidgwick, Stephanie Beacham, Tom Dover