Spitfire

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“Imagine Tonya Harding playing Jason Bourne. Yep, it’s like that.”

This can only be described as a mess, albeit a crappily entertaining one, with a leading lady in Phillips, who almost made it to the Olympics, being described as “the next Mary-Lou (Retton)”, before trying her hand in low-budget action. She plays an international-level gymnast and martial-arts expert, whose parents are, unknown to her, involved in a plot involving the launch codes for Ukrainian missiles. The mother is killed by villainous Brit, Carla Davis (Douglas – apparently Jenny Agutter was unavailable. Or, more likely, too expensive), who wants to get her claws on the codes for some reason. Hey, she’s a villain: what more does she need? She captures Dad (Henriksen), but not before he has given his daugher the first in a series of clues which will lead her and investigative journalist Rex Beechum (Thomerson), apparently with an unlimited expense account, around the globe from Rome to Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong and Athens, bumping into various unexpected siblings along the way.

One senses this globe-hopping was largely funded by Pyun’s frequent flier miles, and he makes sure that we see enough of the actors that we know they were actually there – I suspect Henriksen was excluded, as he is never shown in anywhere that couldn’t be faked outside a studio, nor is he ever on-screen at the same time as Thomerson. Despite an opening credit sequence which is clearly trying to channel a seventies Bond flick (not least in the jet-pack with which Henriksen escapes the bad guys), this plays more like a distaff version of Gymkata, with significantly poorer production values, though at least Phillips doesn’t need to be doubled for the gymnastics scenes. There’s a bizarre subplot involving evil Romanians, which also appears to have strayed in from a Cold War era, and many, many chase sequences, which pause briefly for exposition, or Phillips to demonstrate her mediocre martial-arts skills. There’s certainly no shortage of things going on, even if the interest level of these often remains questionable. However, I’ll admit, I did laugh at the running joke which sees Beechum perpetually being knocked out by someone or other.

Thomerson and Henriksen could do this kind of thing in their sleep, and apparently did so here, though still lend the film an air of quality that it largely lacks otherwise, and Douglas makes for a decent villainess. Phillips is more problematic: after Betrayal, it was the second film of the day where we had a lead actress who wasn’t actually an actress, and it shows. I’m now fairly convinced that some kind of test should be required of anyone starring in a movie, and if you don’t pass, your artistic license gets revoked. Phillips, wisely, retired from acting there after, saving the world from further punishment – if, unfortunately, not further Albert Pyun movies.

Dir: Albert Pyun
Star: Kristie Phillips, Tim Thomerson, Sarah Douglas, Lance Henriksen

Betrayal (Svik)

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“World War Zzzzz”

“I’m a Barbie girl, in a Nazi world…” That’s an equally appropriate summary here, because the heroine in this flick, set in occupied Norway during World War II, was the lead singer of Aqua, famous (or notorious, if you prefer) for a certain catchy pop ditty. She plays – and I know you’ll find this a stretch – a singer, who works in a nightclub, which caters for high-ranking Nazi officers, while she simultaneously works with the local resistance and beds SS Major Kruger (Otto). The Allies are seeking plans of a local aluminium smelting plant, a key cog in the Third Reich’s war machine, so an airstrike can be called down on to it. Local businessman Tor Lindblom (Saheim) partners with Kruger to profit from the industrial operation, and play both sides, until their pet auditor is replaced by one rather less amenable to their embezzlement.

It’s a very shiny, upbeat approach to a thoroughly unpleasant situation, with little or no death for any significant characters until the final reel. The makers seem to want to say something important about Norwegian collaborators of the time – a final caption tells us that even the worst of them received only a light sentence (it doesn’t mention that puppet president Quisling, who is depicted, was executed by firing squad shortly after the end of the war). What exactly that ‘something important’ might be, is largely unclear: that’s in line with the rest of the plot, which could fairly be described as a muddled mess, with the loyalties of the participants apparently fluid and subject to the whims of the storyline.

Which would be tolerable if any of the other aspects were credible, but neither the performances, nor that script, succeed in capturing the interest of the viewer – Nystrom’s lack of acting experience is particularly notable, and she only really comes to life when on the stage at the club, belting out showtunes. There is a nice sense of period atmosphere, which could be described as “neo-Nazi Norwegian noir“, though much like the story, there’s far too much reliance on worn-out stereotypes in lieu of anything else. While slight tension is finally generated at the end, when Eva breaks for the Swedish border, it’s more the last twitch of a dead corpse than anything of significance.

Dir: Akon Gundersen
Star: Lene Nystrom, Fridtjov Saheim, Gotz Otto, Kare Conradi

Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counterattack

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“Blue is the color; extortion, theft and other anti-social activities is the game.”

Reiko (Ike) is leader of the Athens Gang, a low-level all-girl gang, who specialize in car thefts and rolling naive salarymen with the lure of hot sex. They’re part of a hierarchy, which includes a male gang under whom they loosely operate, who are in turn on the fringes of a Yakuza group. There’s also a motor-cycle gang and its leader (Taki) who don’t obey anyone, and that independence is really what Reiko wants, even though her group is obliged to follow certain rules, such as not getting attached to any man. Things are disrupted by the return of former leader Jun (Kagawa) from reform school: will Reiko be able to hold on to her position? It’s just one of a large number of plot threads here: you also get the blackmail of a pop star; a hitman agreeing to one last mission; a gangster estranged from his wife and daughter; sex on motorcycles for no apparent reason; a journalist with a nose for scandal; and, of course Reiko failing to follow her own rule about no attachments.

That’s more of a problem than a benefit here, as the threads are of significantly varying interest. Obviously, I’m not averse to see Jun and Reiko brawl for control, and the heroic muck-raking writer is actually an interesting figure, cheerfully admitting to what he does, but also believing he genuinely makes a difference by exposing sordid sex scandals. While I didn’t realize how hierachical Japanese crime was, there are too many moments of earnest drama, that slow down what needs to be a fast-paced romped through the seedy underbelly of criminal life, and a couple of moments that are just laugh-out loud bad, such as when Jun asks for a farewell song from another gang member. What I want to know is, was the full orchestra she gets, hiding in a closet?

Despite the titles, which imply some kind of sequel, this was the first in a seven-film series, four directed by Suzuki. At this point, he still seems a little uncomfortable with the style, and there isn’t the necessary consistency of tone to provide a smooth ride. Ike and Kagawa are both good in their roles, however. Right from the first encounter, and the traditional girl-gang greeting, their interactions are a nicely-crafted mix of tension and politeness, and you know it’s only a matter of time until things finally kick off. When it does, this is indeed memorable. Otherwise, there’s just a bit too much filling, at the expense of the meat.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Reiko Ike, Yukie Kagawa, Keiko Yumi, Shinsuke Taki
a.k.a. Queen Bee Strikes Again

Claymore

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“Broads with swords. Really big swords. And monsters. There will be blood.”

You can almost imagine the trailer for this anime series being done by The Trailer Guy [y’know, who does all the voice-overs for Hollywood action flicks]: “In a world where demons stalked the land… One woman… Was humanity’s final hope…” The particular focus here is Clare (Kuwashima), one of 47 Claymores, an all-female sect of nomadic warriors who travel a fictional country, battling the flesh-eating Yoma, with combat abilities that border on the magical. But doing so requires them to unleash their own Yoma power, an act which runs the risk of them becoming what they hunt if they lose control. Clare rescues Raki (Takagi), who becomes her companion and cook, but out heroine has a mission of her own: hunting down and killing the Yoma who, years previously, killed her own mentor, Teresa of the Faint Smile.

This 26-episode show does not skimp on the violence, to say the least, with limb-lopping and arterial spray, both human and demonic. the order of the day, and the style is nicely mature (I’m no fan of the huge eye approach so often seen in anime, which inevitably makes me think the show is aimed at 11-year-old girls. Sailor Moon has a lot to answer for). But what worked best for me was the characterization: it’s a neat role reversal, with the taciturn warrior being female, and the clingy tag-along, male. The other members of the organization, when we meet them, are also well-drawn, with their own back stories and motivations, as well as abilities. The interplay among them is fascinating, with a strict hierarchy, which Clare threatens to up-end, due to how she became one of them.

Two-thirds through, this was poised on the edge of greatness, but it ended up falling short. The sub-plot involving her splitting from Raki, and their subsequent reunion, is poorly handled, and the series topples over into repetitious battles, with the final few 25-minute episodes little more than two long fights, with a brief pause between them. One wonders if this might have worked better in a longer format: by the time you lop off opening and closing credits and the “story so far” sequence, there isn’t a lot of room to move the story on and provide the necessary quota of action. Do not expect any resolution either: the series ends in a way that requires a second season, which hasn’t happened at this point (the manga is ongoing, I think). Still, even as someone who is nowhere near as much an anime fan as I used to be, this was not unimpressive stuff, and definitely didn’t leave me feeling like I had wasted my time.

Dir: Hiroyuki Tanaka
Star: (voice) Houko Kuwashima, Motoki Takagi, Aya Hisakawa, Hana Takeda

Hannie Caulder

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“Iconic imagery, but not really too convincing a heroine. “

If genre entries produced in Italy are “spaghetti Westerns”, what does that make those produced in Britain? “Fish and chip Westerns?” “Roast beef Westerns?” Shot in Spain, but made by Tigon Film, and including such quintessential Brits as Christopher Lee and Diana Dors in supporting roles, this is nicely-photographed and hits all the right notes. But as the titular character, who seeks revenge after her husband is gunned down, and she herself raped, by the Clemens brothers, Welch perhaps has too much cinematic baggage. While responsible for one of the all-time absolute classic images of the genre, it’s an association which leaves the viewer struggling to look at the heroine without seeing fur bikinis or even Fathom, rather than a widow, hellbent on and dedicated to vengeance with an almost psychotic obsession and lack of self-concern.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy, not least Culp as the bounty hunter who, reluctantly, agrees to take Caulder under his wing, largely realizing that she’s going to get herself killed otherwise. He delivers exactly the right air of world-weary wisdom, and Hannie’s training is covered in enough depth, and with enough bumps in the road, to be credible. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Clemens (Borgnine, Martin and Jack Elam): for some reason, they are portrayed almost as comedic jesters or harmless buffoons, characters in great contrast to the vicious rapists and killers we first see. It’s an odd combination, that doesn’t work. Much better used is Lee, as a gunsmith who has retired to Mexico to raise rug-rats, and it’s there Caulder’s mettle is first tested.

I did suspect that she wouldn’t be able to complete her mission without significant male help – this was made in 1971, after all. I was somewhat right, but only somewhat. The ending is both fairly satisfying, in that it avoids the obvious get-out in this direction, but also unsatisfying, in that it merely replaces it with a different one, which is likely too much of a deus ex machina to be acceptable. However, there’s no denying Welch’s credentials as a screen icon, and if this could never be called a classic of the genre, there’s enough here that does work, to make this more than an acceptable entry in the field. Even if one which, thanks to its Anglo origins, perhaps would be best accompanied by a nice cup of tea.

Dir: Burt Kennedy
Star: Raquel Welch, Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin