6 Guns

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Hannie Caulder with less cleavage. And no Christopher Lee.”

The Asylum studio are infamous for producing ‘mockbusters’ – straight to DVD look-alikes of big-budget movies, designed to benefit from their publicity budgets. These have included their own versions of Sherlock Holmes and War of the Worlds, but they do make their own original works, including cheesy delights such as Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, starring 80’s popsters Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. They come in for a lot of flak as a result – some justified, some not, for this is neither mockbuster nor cheesy, and is surprisingly solid, if you want a straightforward Western tale of revenge. Selina Stevens (Mears) has to watch as her husband and two young sons are killed by Lee Horn (Mead) and his gang; she is brutally raped and left for dead, beginning a decline into alcoholic despair. Having reached bottom, she meets bounty-hunter Frank Allison (Van Dyke), and asks him to teach her how to shoot – conveniently, just as Horn’s crew start to make their way back to town. The townsfolk’s repeated affirmations that they feel safer with Frank around, might have been a bit premature.

Ok, ‘original’ might be a bit of a stretch, as the storyline is more than a bit reminiscent of Hannie Caulder [which I must get round to reviewing at some point], though sensibly reins back the glamour Raquel Welch provided there. On its own merits, however, this is based on a solid trio of central performances, with Mead particularly memorable as the black-hearted thug – in an interesting twist, it’s revenge which also triggers his initial assault on Stevens’ family. Selina’s transition to a gunslinger is nicely handled; she doesn’t exactly become a sharpshooter – but when opportunity presents itself, can shoot a fairly stationary target at shortish range, which is credible. Against this its low-budget nature is highly-obvious, with the “town” inhabited by about 12 people, and the action in general could have been spliced in from any randomly-selected 1950’s oater.

This remains a decent tale, satisfactorily told, with interesting characters, good performances and more than a local resonance, given its placedropping of Arizona names. And in case you’re wondering, no, there are not six guns in the movie, despite the title [depending on the count, there might be five or seven…] Still, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that this doesn’t fall in the upper echelon of the studio’s movies: this kind of thing should escape from The Asylum more often.

Dir: Shane Van Dyke
Star: Sage Mears, Barry Van Dyke, Geoff Meed, Greg Evigan

Haywire trailer

Steven Soderbergh in the action-heroine genre? Looks like it, with MMA stat Gina Carano turning her hand to acting, as a government agent gone wrong. We’ve all seen that before, but I think Carano’s background will make this a little more credible than is just being “Bourne with breasts.” Here’s the trailer; the film is out in January, and seems a credible early contender for 2012 Action Heroine of the Year.

Colombiana

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“The revenge and hit-woman genres could cross-pollinate each other. Just not here.”

There are moments where this seems to have the potential to break out beyond its story, but once you get past the strong central core, the script has very little to offer. Cataleya (Saldana) narrowly escapes death when her parents are killed on the orders of their gangster employer, Don Luis. She flees from Colombia to Chicago and is raised by a family friend, but never forgets where she came from, and has revenge on her mind. Grown-up, she becomes a hit-woman, but has a side-project of payback. She has an occasional boyfriend (Vartan) who knows little about her, and a dogged FBI agent (James), intent on tracking down the mysterious, elusive killer. Y’know: all the usual baggage that goes along with being an assassin.

The action, however, is what rescues this, and when the heroine is in motion, it’s generally fluid and effective. There are two sequences in particular that stand out: Cataleya’s hit of a gangster in prison, and the final showdown where she goes to Don Luis’s headquarters, and takes on… Well, to borrow a famous line from another Besson script, “Everyone!” They are well-staged, with Saldana showing flexibility and athleticism of an impressive degree (Besson’s fondness for parkour also shows up). However, between these two, there isn’t much to speak of; a third sequence, involving a swimming-pool filled with sharks(!) fails, mostly because you’re wondering why the hell Cataleya opted to swim across said pool rather than – oh, I dunno – walking around it?

The background stuff doesn’t work either, particularly the efforts to give her a normal life, which seem both perfunctory and contrived, and Vartan’s role is entirely pointless in emotional terms. I suspect, going by past history, Besson would have been better off directing this himself, not giving it to the man who handled the eminently forgettable Red Siren and Transporter 3. This might be as close to a Leon sequel as we’ll ever get. However, a while back, probably nearly 15 years ago now, I came up with an idea for a film about a woman who witnessed her family being killed, and a decade later, came back for her revenge. I even got as far as starting on a script. While I’m probably biased, I’m pretty sure it was better than Colombiana.

Dir: Olivier Megaton
Star: Zoe Saldana, Lennie James, Michael Vartan, Jordi Molla

Sweet Karma

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“Hang on: I thought revenge was sweet, not karma? Oh, well: never mind.”

After she gets word, back in their native Russia, that her sister has been killed in Toronto, Karma (Bechard) vows revenge on those responsible. This pulls her in to a seedy, dangerous world of sex trafficking, with women being lured from Eastern Europe to the West, with the promise of legitimate jobs, only to forced on arrival into working as strippers or worse, by the criminal elements who organize and run the business, with a fist of iron. As Karma stabs, shoots and bludgeons her way up the chain of command, those at the top grow increasingly restless. Initially, they think a rival gang is responsible, but the evidence eventually convinces them Karma is, indeed, a bitch,

This was better than I expected, with the obviously low budget working more for the film than against it, enhancing the ‘grindhouse’ feel that you have here – Karma is mute, which adds a definite resonance of Ms. 45 or Thriller: A Cruel Picture, though little more than that. It’s certainly not short on nudity and violence, but rarely topples over the edge into gratuitous, being largely necessary to bring out exactly how callous those are, treating the women as nothing more than slabs of meat, as in the scene where the girls “learn” pole-dancing.

After the initial death – an assault using office supplies, whose aftermath has Karma puking her guts out into a waste-paper basket – it does take a little while to get back to the nitty-gritty. There’s also a mis-step towards the end, where attention is diverted from the heroine, to an undercover cop (Tokatlidis) who is none too pleased to have his case threatened by an avenging angel. And some of the dialogue is a little too Tarantino-esque, e.g. burbling on about hockey. Well, it is Canadian, I guess.

However, the pluses generally outnumber the minutes, with some imaginative deaths, not least the pimp lured into a bathroom and offered “cocaine” by Karma. Bechard, despite her lack of dialogue, does a good job of putting across the determination she feels in pursuing her goal, and I liked the throbbing techno soundtrack which underscores proceedings. I’m also pleased to see it avoid the faux trappings of some recent genre entries, such as Machete. I was expecting something a good deal shinier, shallower and, well, shittier; instead, it’s a grubby and fairly serious look into a world which we probably would rather ignore.

Dir: Andrew Thomas Hunt
Star: Shera Bechard, John Tokatlidis, Frank J. Zupancic, Christian Bako

Memoirs of a Lady Ninja

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“The world’s first Christian soft-porn ninja film. And probably the last.”

This one is so obscurist I couldn’t even find an IMDB entry for it, despite a fairly high-profile release from Tokyo Shock. I can perhaps see why. It’s more an excuse for a series of coupling, mostly involving Hara, who has gone on to greater fame in the 3-D Sex and Zen movie. She plays a blue-eyed ninja called Hijiri. She gets frames for the theft of a scroll which can be used to gain immortality, and ends up falling off a cliff. She is nursed back to health by a Christian named Seitaro (Yoshioka), but their peaceful existence is threatened, as the scroll’s previous owner sends out minions to retrieve it, and another religious sect also vows to convert adherents to the ‘heathen’ religion, by any means necessary.

So many problems here, not least that no-one involved in this can fight their way out of a paper-bag, in particular Hara, who manages to block full swings from samurai swords with something better suited for opening envelopes. There’s a whole subplot about her mother also being a ninja, and abandoning the heroine for her own protection, shortly before she was killed, which has left Hijiri with issues. It is not very interesting, and serves largely to provide the McGuffin necessary for the final battles, when she has to take on the “Saint” at the head of the rival sect, and defeat someone who has read the scroll of immortality.

It deserves some credit for the blue-eyed ninja idea – Hijiri’s father was a Portuguese trader – and it’s got an unusual take on both xenophobia and religion, unashamedly depicting Christians as the good guys [while I’m agnostic, I appreciate seeing something you rarely get, even in the West]. However, it’s executed with such a complete lack of skill, as to have me reaching for the fast-forward through significant chunks [and I confess to actually using it in the sex scenes]. Despite my summary up top, there is apparently a Part 2 of this knocking about. It’ll likely be quite some time before I can be bothered to review it.

Dir: Jiro Ishikawa
Star: Saori Hara, Mutsuo Yoshioka, Akari Hoshino

We Are The Night

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“German vampires – but the polar opposite of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.”

Lena (Herfurth) lives on the edge of society: stealing from other criminals, and running from the cops. But her life changes forever, when she comes to the attentions of Louise (Hoss), a rich socialite, who runs with her pack of friends. Louise is actually a centuries-old vampire, who sees something in Lena’s eyes, something for which Louise has been searching for many decades. She bites Lena, and her transformation into a creature of the night begins. It’s not without its issues: to force Lena to come to terms with her new-found strength and speed, she is handed over to a pimp, a scenario which turns into a blood-bath. While Lena does adapt, the police investigate the killings and Tom (Riemelt), who knew Lena from her street days, realizes there’s a connection between her and what happened.

While there’s precious little new here, in terms of content, it’s really a film where the style is probably more important, and the makers nail this impeccably. It’s a glossy, shiny movie, set in a world that looks like a car advert [and, as an aside, there are some very nice cars here!], where the streets are perpetually wet and the only light is neon, with a perpetually thumping techno beat as the soundtrack. Of course, your mileage may vary as to how that translates into a cinematic experience, but I loved the attitude on view, despite the short attention span and focus on distracting the viewer with shiny, pretty baub… Ooh! Sparkly things! Sorry, where was I?

It’s the moments that you’ll remember: Lena’s bath-tub transformation with her old life literally melting off her, or the restaurant scene where one of the immortals proves exactly how hard-core a smoker she is, by stubbing a cigarette out in her eye. And the radical feminist philosophy is engagingly confident, espoused here as, “We eat, drink, sniff coke, and fuck as much as we like. But we never get fat, pregnant, or hooked.” Louise helped kill off the male vampires because they were a waste of undeath, and has deliberately avoided turning men since. It is, if you like, a distaff version of The Lost Boys, crossed with Daughters of Darkness, with some fine action set-pieces thrown in, that I wish they’d extended a bit. When you contrast this with lame vampire updatings like T*w*l*ght, there’s no doubt which is superior.

Dir: Dennis Gansel
Star: Karoline Herfurth, Nina Hoss, Jennifer Ulrich, Max Riemelt