La Metralleta

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“Mexploitation, let down by shoddily-staged action.”

Mexican culture is just so damned macho, there isn’t much room for action heroines, though there have been a few. As well as Santo and Blue Demon, The Wrestling Women donned the lucha masks in the sixties, and La Reina del Sur had a surprisingly feisty heroine for the telenovela genre; we’ve covered a couple of other entries previously, also covering life on the criminal side of the tracks.

However, this would be the first I’ve seen where the heroine is a Mexican policewoman. It’s Lt. Diana Gonzalez (Dosamentes), who is focusing her efforts on catching drug lord Constantino, and has had some success in disrupting his operations. He takes revenge by targetting Diana’s younger sister Sandra (Buitron), turning her into a junkie and eventually killing her, making it look like she was taking part in an S&M party. But far from taking the hint, this just causes Diana to become even more determined, and reckles – starting with the nightclub singer who got Sandra hooked, she works her way up the food chain from there.

Diana is knows as “La Metralleta”, which is Spanish for machine-gun, due to her weapon of choice – which, in a testament to lax Mexican gun-control regulations in the early nineties, she takes home after work, in what appears to be a shopping bag. The two things this has going for it are the script and the central performance. The story is nice and direct, and it seems appropriate that Constantino and his henchmen really don’t take Diana seriously until it’s too late. Dosamentes also does well with her role, and is nowhere near as matronly as the sleeve on the right would suggest, despite being in her forties. She has a steely intensity, especially after the death of her sister, that works nicely.

What doesn’t work? Sadly, the action is completely crap. Constantino’s men are from the Imperial Stormtrooper school of marksmanship, unable to hit La Metralleta, even when she’s basically standing in front of them with no protection at all. Worst yet are the woeful attempts at fisticuffs: wisely, the makers keep these to a minimum, but the couple of scenes where Dosamantes tries to go hand-to-hand are unutterably awful. It’s a shame, since I’d have been prepared to settle for mere competence on this front, because there’s enough going on elsewhere in this to keep your interest.

Dir: Roberto Schlosser
Star: Susana Dosamantes, Carlos Cardán, Juan Gallardo, Blanca Buitron

Angel end fight

If you read last month’s review of Angel – and if you haven’t, go do so and we’ll wait! – you’ll know it was one of the formative influences of the genre. The clip below shows you exactly why, as Moon Lee (with support from Elaine Lui) and Yukari Oshima go toe-to-toe. Almost 25 years later, it’s still up there in terms of hard-hitting F/F action. No subs. But trust us: it doesn’t need them.

Bail Enforcers

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“Insert “Can’t get no Stratus-faction” pun here.”

The films put out starring WWE wrestlers are a bit of a mixed bag: some are mindlessly entertaining, while others are near unwatchable. And much the same goes for their Diva’s division: some are actually good wrestlers, others are clearly chosen for their looks. Stratus does probably fall into the former category, but this doesn’t do her adequate justice, and top-billing is probably a bit of a stretch – she’s held hostage more than she kicks ass. She plays Jules, one of three bounty-hunters, who pick up a guy that suggests a deal: let him go, and he’ll point them to a wanted man with a $100,000 reward. They accept, but when taking the guy in, get a call from mob boss Hal Lambino (Rafla) who offers them one million dollars if they deliver the bail-jumper to him instead. Needless to say, the transaction doesn’t go smoothly.

Stratus isn’t bad, especially considering this is her feature debut. However, cinematic fighting isn’t the same thing as fighting the WWE, and it shows: bounty hunters shouldn’t be using flying scissors and hurricanranas – it takes the viewer completely out of the scenario they are trying to build. To be honest, in that department, Stratus is entirely outclassed by Andrea James Lui, who plays one of Lambino’s heavies, and is impressive in every action scene she has – the two fights the pair have against each other, including a confined-space battle in an ambulance, showcase the difference in styles nicely. If you think Stratus looks better, you’re clearly a fan.

The main problem beyond this is a tired storyline, with aspects that should simply have been strangled at birth. For example, Jules working as a waitress in a strip-club, which is purely an excuse to get her into a schoolgirl uniform, serving no point otherwise. Fortunately, Chris has bailed for Facebook poker on seeing the words “Trish Stratus” – her tolerance for WWE Divas is close to zero – or the sarcasm levels in the room might have bordered on the lethal. There are ooccasionally moments of levity, mostly from Phillips; it’s worth sticking around for the end credits, to see some of the alternative takes unleashed. However, there’s little here which isn’t familiar, and between the brawls, it doesn’t do enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

Dir: Patrick McBrearty
Star: Trish Stratus, Boomer Phillips, Frank J. Zupancic, Joe Rafla
a.k.a. Bounty Hunters

Gladiatress

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“Not at all what you’d expect.”

I could hear Chris’s eyes rolling when the title came up – I can’t blame her, as the viewing immediately followed Virgin Commandos, whose mere name sent her scurrying off to Facebook poker. This, however, was not the soft-porn flick she anticipated. Instead, it’s a comedy, somewhat spoofing Gladiator, but its closest cousin is likely Carry On Cleo. That said, it’s undeniably gynocentric, with the three heroines about the only competent characters on either side.

It’s set in 55 BC, when Caesar (Vibert) made his first push into Britain. Resistance is led by warrior princess Dwyfuc (Mackichan), but when she is captured by the Romans, it’s up to little sister Worthaboutapig (Phillips) to rescue her. To do so, she must first enlist the support of their estranged sister, the even more warrior-like princess Smirgut the Fierce (Allen). After venturing across the channel (mistaking France for Rome), the trio are re-united only to have to fight undefeated Goth Schlaffwaffe in the arena. And even if they win, there’s still the little matter of the Roman armies, massing for another invasion attempt.

They were also the creators of UK sketch series Smack the Pony, and this is a similar mix of the mundane and surreal. While you do definitely need a particular sense of humour to appreciate this – if you don’t, this could well seem the worst film ever – it hit enough spots for us. Much of it is simply playing against type and expectations, e.g. Smirgut, who really looks like she could kick your ass (above right), and growls as a means of communication – then launches into a discourse on discovering Worthaboutapig is actually happy with her new life as a Roman slave.

The action is undeniably limited, being played more for laughs than excitement – the much-fabled ‘Celtic Kick’, turns out to be not quite what you think. Of course, this being British humour, there are also fart and willie jokes, but works because the characters have foibles and quirks to render them human. Smirgut has lost her inner warrior since motherhood; Dwyfuc is thoroughly unimpressed by the men available to her, and Worthaboutapig has long-standing self-esteem issues – unsurprisingly, really, given her name. The results are heroines who are likeable, as well as being brave and resourceful. I found the results very refreshing, with better-drawn characters than many bigger budget movies. That was definitely not what we expected from this.

Dir: Brian Grant
Star: Sally Phillips, Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan, Ronan Vibert

Haywire

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“First Form at Mallory Towers”

Soderbergh has never shied away from using unconventional cast members in his movies. Bubble was made entirely with non-professional actors, and when he wanted someone to play a high-class call-girl for The Girlfriend Experience, he went with renowned adult actress, Sasha Grey. Continuing this trend, Haywire revolves around MMA star Carano, which I guess means Soderbergh’s recent leading ladies could, in real life, kick your ass or lick your ass. Ok, I’ll stop. Here, Carano plays Mallory Kane – I keep wanting to type Mallory Knox – an employee of a shady private contracting firm with links to the government, who do the dirty jobs for which the feds want plausible deniability.

We first meet her in a diner, where Aaron (Tatum) meets her. It’s clear there’s some tension, with Aaron having been ordered to bring her in. After a brief, brutal brawl, she knocks him out and escapes, in a car belonging to startled patron Scott (Angarano). There she reveals what led up to that day: an operation in Barcelona, supposedly to rescue a hostage, followed by another in Dublin, which turned out to be an attempt to tidy up the loose ends from Barcelona, The plan is to frame Kane for multiple murders and portray her as a rogue operative. Kane needs to get to her boss, Kenneth (McGregor), and expose the truth before she’s gunned down.

It’s a deliberately-vague plot, with the characters speaking in clipped obscurisms, that leave the audience to piece things together. Don’t worry, it all becomes clear by the end, but it is probably fair to say that you have to pay a bit more attention than is usual for this kind of Hollywood thriller, between the fractured timeline and doubtful loyalties of most characters. It’s economical, at a tight 91 minutes (about 22 minutes shorter than the average Jason Bourne movie to date), and much like Carano, there’s not much fat on its bones: every scene serves a distinct purpose, which is definitely the way I like my movies.

I find it hard to criticize Carano’s acting, because it’s not clear how much acting is involved. Mallory Kane does not just possess physical prowess, but one who is also extremely comfortable with using it, and has a quiet confidence in her abilities. Any similarity to Carano is clearly not coincidental, and there isn’t much more required of her, in terms of emotion or depth. Unlike most action heroines there is no “personal” agenda e.g. Sarah Connor in T2, Ellen Ripley in Aliens, or The Bride in Kill Bill, it’s simply a case that her enemies are out to get her. In that aspect, Knox is not a particularly-“feminine” character. Just as Salt was originally envisaged as a male role, it’s easy to imagine someone like Jason Statham playing this part; hardly any plot changes would be needed.

And then there’s the ass-kicking, of various kinds. It’s good, Carano demonstrating a no-nonsense style that’s highly-effective. Perhaps too effective, in fact, since it seems that hardly any of the fights last longer than about 30 seconds – even the hotel bedroom one, which is certainly one of the roughest male/female brawls seen this side of Terminator 3, feels like it ends, just about when it should be getting going. While it’s nice to be left wanting more, rather than less, it’s still not quite the all-you-can-eat buffet of action I wanted. There also is no real sense of escalation; her final battle isn’t particularly different from the one which opens the film, in the diner; it has another location, and that’s about it, there’s no indication her adversary is any more of a challenge.

While the battles are well crafted – I note that the fight co-ordinator was J.J. Perry, who worked on Sunland Heat back in 2005 – perhaps my favorite scene was not actually one of them, but an extended scene where Mallory has to shake off her pursuers in Dublin. It is adequately extended, contains a number of twists and turns over its length, and showcases Carano’s physical prowess in more than just brutality, as she glides through and over buildings. I also enjoyed a snowy car-chase, which ends in a way which, I’m prepared to bet, you haven’t seen in a movie before. One senses Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs enjoyed playing with the usual expectations of the genre.

It’s certainly shot in typical Soderbergh style. He throws all manner of styles in there, from black-and-white through hand-held to the heavy use of colour filters. Mostly, these flourishes enhance the film, rather than distracting from it, and a billion nods of approval are due for avoiding the rapid-cut style of editing, which is the bane of modern action cinema (except for the rare cases where it’s done properly). Still, there’s no question it’s obvious who made it, to the point that I actually laughed when a shot of Kenneth appeared in sepia – having seen Traffic, I knew, before it was explained, that he had to be in Mexico.

All told, if not quite an all-time classic, this is more than acceptable, upper-tier work. Carano is by no means out of her depth, despite a heavyweight supporting cast including the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, and has an understated charisma which works in her favour. I don’t know if her future plans involving returning to the octagon, or sticking with the acting, but if it’s the latter, she’d certainly be a welcome addition to the (fairly short) roster of credible action-heroines from which Hollywood can draw.

Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Star: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Angarano

Lunatic Frog Women

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“How can you not love a film with that title? Well… “

This came out the same year as Golden Queens Commando and Pink Force Commando and feels like a Taiwanese knock-off, taking a similarly bulk approach to its action heroines. They escape from (what I discovered lately was) a North Vietnamese prison, with the help of the warden, who is in love with one of his captives – he comes along too, and they all end up on an island where there’s a guerilla force, run by the Captain, whom we’ll get back to later. They become part of her “Ladies Marine Corps”, and start to train. One of the girls’ mothers shows up, offering to take her back to Hong Kong, but the farewell party is interrupted by pirates, who kill the mother. Two of the platoon desert. Finally – and we’re talking an hour into a movie that runs only 85 minutes – the training is over, and the Slightly-Irritated Frogwomen (movie titler, please note) head off on their first mission, to recover a cache of diamonds hidden on a North Vietnamese boat.

I confess a palpable sense of disappointment when I realized that title was inappropriately spaced: it should be “Frogwomen” – as in scuba divers, not the bizarre results of some medically dubious experimentation. Which would have been a great deal more entertaining than watching apparently endless training footage of them swimming underwater, which is nowhere near as exciting as the director thinks. Indeed, between the opening prison-break and the final assault, this is incredibly dull, to the point that, between the film and my wife’s pasta (which should only be available with a prescription, and not eaten before operating heavy machinery), it’s possible I might have closed my eyes and listened to the dialogue now and again. The action, when it eventually appears, isn’t bad: however, there’s far too little of it and the film’s pacing is terrible.

Minor points to note. If the soundtrack seems like it comes from a totally different film, that’s because it did. Alex In Wonderland notes it comes from The Road Warrior The three names listed above are the only ones listed in the credits of the English-language version, which seems only to exist in a version with Greek subs. It’s not clear if those actresses include the only now-recognizable face – I suspect no-one would have predicted at the time, that she’d go on to play, 18 years later, a major role in a movie nominated for an Oscar. For the captain is none other than Cheng Pei-Pei, who was Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger. Who knew?

Dir: T. Som Chai
Star: Patty Tie, Cathy Lee, Diana Dee
a.k.a. Virgin Commandos

The Deadly Angels

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“At the risk of repeating myself, poster not necessarily representative of movie contents.”

Inspired though the alternate titling of The Bod Squad might be, the original title likely gives a better idea of the inspiration for this 1977 Shaw Brothers flick: think Charlie’s rather than deadly. Three women, from Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, under the orders of Bosley Scotland Yard’s Miss Eve (Kraft, known to cult fans from Mighty Peking Man), go undercover in a night-club. Girls from there have been recruited to smuggle out of Hong Kong the proceeds from a series of brutal jewel robberies – the previous couriers all turn up stabbed to death after delivering the goods. However, the agents turn out to be a bit crap at the whole undercover thing, and the bad guys are none too happy to discover undercover operatives in their midst.

The main problem is, this takes way to long to get to the action. Outside of a pretty decent training sequence, there’s very little to speak of for the first hour. The film tries to make up in sex, what it doesn’t deliver in violence, with plenty of nudity and coercive sex, but the only point of note is an impressive death by fire extinguisher, inflicted on a witness by the chief villain’s main squeeze (Shaw Yin Yin, one of the decade’s leading erotic actresses in Hong Kong).

Things do perk up in the final reel, with a series of pretty decent battles, in which the girls take on a host of minions, with a little help from Li (Liu), whose father was the one who got “extinguished” (and who, like most Hong Kong martial artists of the time, appears to be trying to channel the very busy spirit of the late Bruce Lee). The agents also have some neat gadgets, such as a belt-buckle that become a spiked yo-yo kind of weapon, a folding cross-bow and a hair scrunchie which forms part of an explosive slingshot. More of these being put to use, and less of victims being slapped around, would have upped the entertainment quotient. You can see the influence this would have on 80’s entries in the genre, but at this point, we’re still talking “barely crawled out of the sea” in evolutionary terms.

Dir: Hun Choi, Hsueh Li Pao
Star: Nancy Yen, Dana, Liu Yang, Evelyn Kraft

Mama’s Dirty Girls

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“Poster not necessarily representative of movie contents.”

While the title suggests something inspired by Corman’s Big Bad Mama, this is a contemporary tale which, in some ways, is actually closer to Faster Pussycat. It has a great deal more nudity, right from the opening scene in which Becky (Rialson) stares into a mirror, and puts on her bikini-top… very… slowly… However, the titular Mama (Grahame) is nowhere near the level of Varla, and the movie feels more like a pale imitation, despite the additional breasts.

Mama Love is a ‘black widow’, who travels the country, finding rich, eligible men whom she marries and then disposes of – in the first case we see, faking her husband’s suicide after using Becky to lure him into a compromising situation. Moving on, they stop at a motel owned by Harold (Lambert), whose wife recently died, apparently making him an ideal target for Mama’s wiles. She poses as a rich widow, travelling cross-country while she waits for her inheritance to be settled, and marriage soon follows, but that’s where things get sticky.

For it turns out Harold is a ‘black widower’, having killed his previous spouse and made it look like she drowned. Having exchanged wills leaving each other the beneficiary, both he and Mama ach now believe the other to be rich, and are out to collect. Meanwhile, one daughter has fallen for the local sheriff, helping him out of his loveless marriage in the only way she knows how, by killing his wife, and the motel’s sub-normal handyman has his eye on another daughter. It all eventually snowballs, into Harold taking a hostage and running for the hills, with Mama, the sheriff and everyone else in hot pursuit.

The makers are a good deal more interested in sex than violence, as far as exploitation goes. If I’d been directing this, I’d have turned the second half into a blackly-humourous War of the Roses story, with Mama and Harold going to ever more extreme lengths to collect. As is, the cast are generally a cut above the usual – if well short of Tura Satana and her crew – but they are largely stuck in a storyline that doesn’t have sufficient content, and delivers what it has with less than adequate energy to make this memorable.

Dir: John Hayes
Star: Gloria Grahame, Paul Lambert, Sondra Currie, Candice Rialson