Zero Woman: The Accused

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“Putting the zero in Zero Woman”

zerowoman4After the genuinely impressive bleakness of Assassin Lovers, the series comes crashing back to earth with a splat like a rotten tomato for this entry, which fizzles out early on, and then manages to lumber on for another 45 minutes. Rei (Tachihara) spends her time between missions hanging out at a gay bar, and rescues one of the rent boys, Mitsusu (Kitagawa), who ply their trade there after a vicious assault – accompanied, it has to be said, by the least appropriate music in the history of cinematic homosexual rape. He ends up moving in with her, to the latest in a series of unfurnished apartments provided by Section Zero, and the two damaged individuals start creating a life, of sorts, for themselves. However, there’s a serial killer, apparently with a deep hatred of men, operating in the area, and Rei is given the mission of tracking down and eliminating the psycho.

It’s hardly less than obvious who it’s going to be, but almost everything here is played at such a low-key, with no measurable intensity, so it’s even hard to be annoyed by this lack of subtlety. About the only moment with any energy is when Rei’s boss Mutoh (Yamashita) smacks her across the face for a bit of backtalk. However, my ennui was overcome by the scene where Mitsusu gives Rei a haircut. Considering this film is less than 80 minutes long, I think I could have very easily done without this – and, ideally, rather more action. After an opening which might impress upon you the importance of not getting stuck in an everyday routine, Gotô seems to lose interest in staging any set pieces, and the final few minutes certainly don’t make up for what has gone before.

Inexplicably described by Tom Mes as “the best” in the series, I found it severely uninteresting on just about any level, being badly hampered by poor performances, direction which struggled to reach workmanlike and, in particular, a script which is largely bereft of ideas. This and Assassin Lovers feel like the Jekyll and Hyde of the series; it’s as if all the good stuff somehow ended up in its predecessor, leaving this installment with just the inept film-making.

Dir: Daisuke Gotô
Star: Mai Tachihara, Yuujin Kitagawa, Shinji Yamashita, Daisuke Yamazaki

The Pagan Queen

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“Czech mates”

This is the story of three sisters – Kazi the healer, Teta the priestess (Filatova) and Libuše (Zoli), who can see both the past and her future. Their father is chieftain of the local tribes, and when he passes away, Libuše is chosen to replace him, due to her supernatural talents. This does not impress some of her male rivals, who seek first to wed her, then when she spurns their advances, to replace her. Libuše’s dream of founding the city of Prague hits problems, and she is forced into marriage, but does at least trick her way into choosing her own husband, the farmer Přemysl (Lucas). However, she soon discovers that he isn’t quite the man he seemed, and he rules the country with an “iron fist,” causing Libuše’s childhood friend, the warrior maiden Vlasta (Mornar) to raise an army of women and rebel against the patriarchy.

paganqueen2It really is nowhere near as good as this sounds, and the synopsis above is significantly more coherent. I swear, I didn’t fall asleep – but it felt like I did, the story lurching from scene to scene in a disjointed manner that rapidly drained all interest. Outside of the heroine, there was hardly any significant effort at giving the characters motivation or depth, and matters weren’t helped by the fact the entire nation seemed to consist of about 25 people. The scenery is nice, and the soundtrack has a full, orchestral feel which seems to have escaped from a higher-budget movie, but it doesn’t work as a historical piece or as a political one – and, certainly, not as an action film. However, I was amused by what I suspect is likely a realistic, if ruthless, depiction of what would probably happen when a warrior maiden comes up against her male counterpart.

I suppose it’s possible this may be more entertaining, or simply coherent, if you’re aware of the legend on which it’s based. However, this would still be a flaw: you don’t need to have read Le Morte D’Arthur to appreciate Excalibur. And, beside, this seems to have been critically skewered in the Czech Republic, so it doesn’t appear background knowledge is that much of a help. I think it’s probably more the case that poorly considered femo-paganism [or paga-feminism, if you prefer] does not make for great cinema, regardless of the language.

Dir: Constantin Werner
Star: Winter Ave Zoli. Csaba Lucas, Lea Mornar, Vera Filatova

In the Line of Duty VII

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“The somewhat-magnificent seven”

seawolvesAs with the preceding entry, there’s a smattering of social commentary; here, the topic is Vietnamese boat people, who reached Hong Kong in droves during the late eighties. The bad guys are a group of pirates, led by Keung (Chu), who prey on the boats, stripping the refugees of valuables before killing them. On one raid, member of the crew John (Yam) recognizes friend Gary (Chow): while he manages to hide Gary, and stop him from being killed, the stowaway suffers cinematically-convenient amnesia, until the boat docks in Hong Kong.

Gary then escapes, and the ship is held in port, due to suspicions about Keung’s true purpose. Turns out Gary has shacked up with Yelia, Yeung’s friend and part-time whore (yeah, seems an odd kinda of friend for a police inspector, but there you go….), and it’s a race to see whether the pirates or Madam Yeung (Khan) can track Gary down first, before the sea wolves have to be released.

Particularly early on, Khan takes a back seat. After showing up at the start, she then more or less vanishes for the next 30 minutes, as the whole back story of the pirate crew is established. Indeed, in terms of overall screen time, she likely trails both Yam and Chow. The former is fine, as he usually is, but it’s easy to see why Chow’s career petered out, as he has the dramatic range of a glass-topped coffee-table. However, the good news is, when Madam Yeung does appear, it’s pretty much the cue for action.

And under the care of action director Philip Kwok, best known for playing Mad Dog in John Woo’s Hard Boiled, the film delivers a copious quantity of solid and hard-hitting fights. Most notable is the final brawl on the ship, as our boarding party of hero(in)es take on an endless stream of bad guys, in the cramped confines of its walkways and engine rooms around the boat. It also helps that the cringe-inducing efforts at comedy seen in some earlier entries, are largely abandoned here.

The entire product does feel rather rushed – likely a necessity, considering this was one of twelve feature films in which Yam appeared this year. Those included two other GWG flicks, unofficial Nikita remake Black Cat, and revenge flick Queen’s High, the latter also alongside Khan. This is likely the least of those three, and looking back to what the Line of Duty series delivered at its peak, it hardly compares. However, that’s more likely a tribute to just how good the best entries were, and it’d be as much a stretch to call this the worst member. It’s competent and hard-hitting enough to provide a satisfactory 90 minutes of entertainment for most kung-fu fans.

Dir: Cheng Siu-Keung
Star: Simon Yam, Garry Chow, Cynthia Khan, Norman Chu
a.k.a. Sea Wolves

Burlesque Assassins

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“A strip off the old block.”

It’s the mid-1950’s, and Bourbon Sue (D’Lite) is recruited to join the titular group (hehehe… He said, “titular”…), under leader Johnny Valentine (Shanks), and immediately thrown into the heart of a vital mission. There are three codes needed to operate a Nazi death ray, which has been dormant since the end of WW2 a decade previously. But the son of Mussolini, a clone of Hitler and the not-as-dead-as-reported Stalin are convening with the codes in a burlesque club, and it’s up to Sue and the other girls to ensure the weapon is not activated. “Seduce and destroy,” as their slogan goes, and the fate of civilization hangs in the balance – though there’s clearly no rush to save the world, with plenty of time to take in a number of performances at the club.burlesque

I’m kinda ambivalent about burlesque. The basic concept – attractive women undressing – is one I can get behind (hehehe… “behind”…), but having attended a number of shows, while entertained, I found maybe 5% of the acts at all erotic. It feels more to me like a modern dance recital, with limited clothing. And this one’s appeal is probably directly connected to your interest in burlesque; I think my wife probably enjoyed this more than I did. It’s not obviously low-budget, but its limitations are obvious: virtually the entire last two-thirds of the film takes place in the club, alternating between the stage and the dressing room, as Sue and her colleagues try to pry the codes from the axis of evil. It’s pretty limited and quite repetitive in terms of story, despite the makers’ efforts to jazz things up with flashbacks and other cut scenes. I’m not sure burlesque with a plot is something the world really needed, to begin with.

But that said, the actors are clearly having a lot of fun, not least Shanks, who spends much of the film in a wig and dress, though the beard and cigar are a bit of a giveaway – naturally, he’s the one for whom the Hitler clone falls. You get the sense a lot of the other cast members don’t have much cinematic experience, but they get by, largely through putting over their larger-than-life character with stage presence. The action here is definitely played for laughs more than anything; indeed, the whole escapade is tongue in cheek, which renders it somewhat criticism-proof. However, this also caps the impact at a fairly low level, since there can be little or no emotional connection with such a trifle. This can truly be recommended, only if you’re a devotee of old-school ecdysiast arts.

Dir: Jonathan Joffe
Star: Roxi D’Lite, Armitage Shanks, Carrie Schiffler, Dusan Rokvic

Cat Run

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“More than one way to skin a Cat…”

mcteerI watched this purely on the strength of the sleeve, and wasn’t really expecting too much. Early on, that’s pretty much what I got: a mildly entertaining riff on things like Smokin’ Aces [which I never really liked to begin with]. A pair of Americans living in Eastern Europe, Anthony Hester (Mechlowicz) and Julian Simms (McAuley) set up a detective agency, and offer their services to find a missing woman, Catalina Rona (Vega). However, they don’t realize a lot of rather violent people are also after Cat, because she’s in possession of a hard drive containing some very incriminating footage of an American politician, on which everyone wants to get their hands. The trail bips around from the Balkans to Andorra, London, Luxembourg and probably other places I’ve forgotten, with Mechlowicz making little or no impact, and McAuley shamelessly aping the two Chris’s, Rock and Tucker, to rather too much impact.

Then McTeer shows up, and the film becomes unutterably wonderful the rest of the way.

Seriously: I don’t think I can remember a movie dragged up so much by a single performance. She plays Helen Bingham, an uber-polite, ultra-violent assassin who starts off on Cat’s tail, but is the victim of a double-cross herself, which turns out to be a very, very bad move for the perpetrators. While Bingham owes a clear debt to the other Helen – that’d be Mirren, in Red – the script gives this character much more room to blossom. The Oscar-nominated McTeer sinks her teeth into the role with gusto, not least in a hellacious brawl with Karel Roden, but every scene with her is a joy, such as her asking the victims of her work, “Do you need a moment?” before offing them. If you can imagine a cross between Mary Poppins and Anton Chigurh (and I appreciate, that’s not easy!), you’ll be in the right area.

There are other delights, not least Tony Curran as an extremely irritable rival Scottish hitman, who meets an extremely messy end. As a Scot, this kind of heavily stereotyped portrayal can be irritating – I’d happily stone Mike Myers to death for his crimes in the area – but Curran gets it right. [Besides, he’s allowed slack after his portrayal of Van Gogh in one of the most memorable of Doctor Who episodes] But the main improvement is that the focus of the film becomes Bingham, rather than Vanillaman and his annoying sidekick. It just goes to show that, even when a movie is clearly not to be taken seriously, as here, it can still be an enormous help when the characters do.

Dir: John Stockwell
Star: Scott Mechlowicz, Alphonso McAuley, Paz Vega, Janet McTeer

Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, on its 10th anniversary

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“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.”

Today marks the 10th anniversary for the release in the United States of Kill Bill, Volume 2, completing the saga of The Bride and her quest for vengeance over the man who stole her daugher, killed her husband at the altar and left her in a coma. In honour of this date, we watched the assembled compilation known as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. While this has never officially been released – despite regular claims by Quentin Tarantino that he was about to start work on it – the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles was allowed to show it in March and April 2011, its second public screening since the Cannes Film Festival of 2004 (there was one at the Alamo Drafthouse).

This helped lead to bootleg editions circulating through the usual sources online, where fans edited the previously-released versions together, to simulate Tarantino’s vision as closely as possible. Of course, these aren’t perfect, if QT’s claims of an extended anime sequence are to be believed. But I’m not inclined to wait around any longer – it’s entirely his own fault I still have not bought a copy of either film, even though they are certainly iconic in our genre. So, how does the combined version play? And a decade after the saga came to its bloody conclusion, does the story still hold up? [Note. This will be less a standard review than a series of feelings.  If you want a review, I refer you to the ones written at the time for Volume 1 and Volume 2.  I suppose I should also insert a spoiler warning for the rest of this piece. Though if anyone reading this hasn’t seen both films already, you pretty much deserve to be spoilered!]

killbill1In terms of content, there isn’t much alteration, with the only real change, a small but significant cut at the end of Volume 1. What’s removed, is Bill’s line, “Is she aware her daughter is still alive?” This means neither audience nor heroine know this, until she shows up at Bill’s house for the final confrontation. [I have to say, her daughter certainly doesn’t seem like a four-year old either.] Rather than substance, the biggest difference for me was stylistic: the overall balance seemed more even, as a single entity, than seen as two separate pieces months apart. Volume 2 seemed excessively talky on its own. While that’s still the case, it’s to a significantly lesser degree, being balanced directly by the first half, where The Bride engages in actions, not words. Indeed, the only person she kills in the second part is Bill, a sharp contrast to the pile of corpses left in her wake during its predecessor. His death still feels somewhat rushed, and it’s a shame the original ending – a swordfight between Bill and Beatrix, clad in her wedding dress, on the beach – couldn’t be filmed, because the production went over time.

My viewing of the film now is also altered, by having seen over the intervening decade, more of the movies which had influenced Quentin, in particular Lady Snowblood and Thriller: A Cruel Picture. I’ve not been a particular fan of this aspect of Tarantino’s work, since the whole City on Fire/Reservoir Dogs thing; I find it gets in the way of enjoying his films, if you’re frequently being reminded of other movies. This kind of homage still works better when it’s slid in more subtly, for example Vernita Green’s pseudonym for her new life being Jeanne Bell, likely a reference to the actress who was the star of the 70’s blaxploitation pic, T.N.T. Jackson. [And, of course, Green’s daughter is called Nikita…] I have to say, QT’s foot fetish seems a lot more blatant now than it did at the time. The most obvious case is when The Bride is trying to regain control of her toes in the back of the Pussy Wagon, but Sofie Fatale’s feet also come in for some attention. Again, perhaps subsequent knowledge plays into the viewing experience.

10 Favourite Lines from The Whole Bloody Affair

  • Vernita Green: Black Mamba. I shoulda been motherfuckin’ Black Mamba.
  • O-Ren Ishii: The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is… I collect your fucking head. Just like this fucker here. Now, if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, now’s the fucking time!
  • The Bride: Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.
  • The Bride: This is what you get for fucking around with Yakuzas! Go home to your mother!
  • The Bride: I want them all to know they’ll all soon be as dead as O-Ren.
  • Budd: That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.
  • Pai Mei: What if your enemy is three inches in front of you, what do you do then? Curl into a ball? Or do you put your fist through him?
  • Elle Driver: I killed your master. And now I’m gonna kill you too, with your own sword, no less, which in the very immediate future, will become my sword.
  • The Bride: Before that strip turned blue, I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train… for you. But once that strip turned blue, I could no longer do any of those things. Not anymore. Because I was going to be a mother.
  • Bill: You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favorite person, but every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.

killbill2What hasn’t changed is the sheer, unadulterated awesomeness of the fights, as jaw-droppingly brutal and intense as they were ten years ago. Yuen Wo-Ping certainly cements his position as the most inventive and effective martial arts choreographer in history. Though this version has the entire House of Blue Leaves fight in colour, the arterial spray becomes so obviously excessive, as to reduce its overall impact. Much love must also now go to someone barely known at the time, now carving out her own niche: stuntwoman and Thurman double: Zoë Bell. Bonus fun is now had, watching the battles and going, “Zoë… Zoë… Uma… Zoë… Uma… Zoë.” [That’s probably fairly close to the correct ratio!] The anime sequence depicting O-Ren Ishii’s early years is still fabulous and lush, revenge foreshadowing The Bride’s. You can see why, in 2006, Tarantino floated the idea of further films in a similar style, telling of Bill’s and Beatrix’s origins. Although, like all the other Kill Bill sequels he has floated over the years, Quentin’s mouth appears to be moving much faster than any actual production.

The combined version does probably run about 30 minutes too long, with Volume 2 in particular need of tightening up. It doesn’t so much reach a climax, as approach it as a limit. Bill’s burbling on about comic-book superheroes is one of those cases where Tarantino’s voice becomes louder than that of his characters (see the first half of Death Proof for a long, drawn-out example of this, perhaps the most self-indulgent dialogue in a filmography largely driven by self-indulgent dialogue). I also remain somewhat skeptical in regard to the deliberate misorder of Beatrix’s revenge. O-Ren Ishii is the first actually killed, according to The Bride’s list, yet we begin with her encountering Vernita Green. While that made some sense when the film was in two volumes, providing a spectacular encounter to end the first half, that’s less the case here. I’ve never found a satisfactory explanation for quite why Green wasn’t simply #1 on the list. But I guess, messing up the timeline is just what Tarantino does.

However, let’s cut to the chase – with the elegance of a pissed-off bride wielding a Hattori Hanzo sword. This remains one of the finest examples of action heroine cinema to come out of mainstream Hollywood, and arguably, hasn’t been matched in the ten years since. And it’s not purely for The Bride: O-Ren, Vernita, Elle and GoGo all deserve acknowledgement as memorable characters, any of whom could stand on their own. Even as someone who can generally take or leave most of Tarantino’s directorial work – I think he’s a better screenwriter – I can’t deny what he crafted here is an undeniable, four-hour classic of the genre.

“The lioness has rejoined her cub, and all is right in the jungle.”

Gallery: Volume 1

Gallery: Volume 2

L’Exécutrice

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“Bon flic, mauvais flic”

They say, write about what you know – and writer-director Caputo certainly appears to have done that here. What better topic for the director of Pénétrations humides to choose for a police thriller, than the sleazy world of porn? Especially, when you can get adult legend Lahaie as your lead. She plays police detective Martine who finally manages to ensnare noted smut-monger Madame Wenders (Erlanger), only to find her gang retaliating by kidnapping Martine’s little sister and demanding the release of their boss. Making things even murkier, her boss (Modo) has a stalkery crush on Wenders, and her colleague, Valmont (Oudrey), carries a picture of the perp who shot his partner around with him. He is inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, and teases her about her reluctance to carry a gun. As the pictures here suggest, that reluctance doesn’t survive until the end of the film.

executrice2It’s all pretty implausible, and doesn’t exactly paint a kind picture of the French police, who are portrayed, almost without exception, as mad, incompetent or both – if it wasn’t for Martine’s informant, she would literally be clueless. However, Lahaie is always worth watching, showing much the same solid screen presence which I’ve previously enjoyed in Fascination. This isn’t as impressive, trading in the ethereal, other-wordly quality for a grubby and gritty urban approach that is never particularly convincing in its depiction. Still, there are some good moments, in particular an extended sequence where Wenders is released from jail, knowing full well the police will be tailing her. The cat-and-mouse game between them, leads to an explosive climax that was genuinely surprising, but the film doesn’t seem to know quite where to go from there.

Against that, there are too many scenes which make little or no sense, such as the one where Martine is attacked in a car-park, only to be rescued by a guy carrying a shotgun in his coat. Or her fondness for sitting in a luminescent hot-tub. While I’m not inclined to complain too much about either, there are times when you wonder if this is the policier version of Caligula, and there’s a three-hour version with hardcore inserts, lurking out there somewhere. I don’t think there is, but it has that kind of disjointed feel to it. Not the disaster I was expecting from some reviews, yet outside of Lahaie, there is little here to commend it to the view.

Dir: Michel Caputo
Star: Brigitte Lahaie, Dominique Erlanger, Pierre Oudrey, Michel Modo

Shinobi Girl

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“Setting a low standard for Netflix distribution.”

shinobigirlOkay, I’m sure there are worse films on Netflix. Somewhere. But I haven’t yet found them/ Combining cheapjack production values with poor performances and woefully bad attempts at social commentary, the occasional decent fight sequence aren’t able to overcome the very significant negatives. The heroine is Noriko (Hellquist), who is raped by the Wall Street bigwig, Ronald Brooks, for whom she works – and then framed for his murder. She creates a secret identity, Shinobi Girl: as well as seeking to expose the real killer, she acts as the protector of the 99%, hunting down and dispatching the decadent uber-rich. They are led by Brooks’ widow (Fahey),  and commit heinous crimes with no fear of legal reprisal, up to and including orgies of murder and cannibalism (!).

The origins as a web series are obvious, with each of the nine episodes (the finale is in two parts), running 15-20 minutes. Take off “previously on Shinobi Girl“, the intro, opening credits, “next time on Shinobi Girl” and closing credits, and you could probably romp through the entire thing on about two hours. If you have some washing-up or ironing that needs doing, that might work, as you can then ignore the scenes where anyone is talking, because most of the performances here would be challenged by a wet paper-bag. It’s also difficult to accept this was made as recently as 2012, because the video quality is not much better than you’d get off an iPhone.

Somewhat redeeming things is the swordplay, although curiously, samurai weapons seem more common in New York than guns. I also kinda liked the multiple female leads: as well as Noriko and Mrs. Brooks, whose scenery-chewing is, at least, somewhat appropriate, there’s also Brooks’ lead henchwoman, Raven (Van De Water). But good intentions alone aren’t enough to sustain any movie. Our daughter used to make little films with her friend and a home-video camera when she was in her early teens: even discounting parental rose-tinting, I suspect those weren’t significantly worse than this. Maybe I need to dig them out and submit ’em to Netflix as a “web series”.

Dir: John Sirabella
Star: Alexandra Hellquist, Molly Fahey, Mia Van De Water, Aaron Mathias

Kite Liberator

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“Half a star deducted, for being only half a movie.”

KiteLiberatorAnd not a very good movie at that, suffering from such multiple personality disorder, it sometimes feels that two completely different anime were spliced together in some mad scientist’s laboratory. If so, he clearly got bored and drifted off while the project was half complete, because this ends in a way which doesn’t so much suggest another part, as demand it unconditionally. Six years on, that still hasn’t materialized, making this about as appetizing as a half-cooked chicken. Oh, and speaking of mad scientists, there’s one of those in here too.

We’re a decade on from the events of the original Kite, and it seems Sawa has – without explanation – morphed into Monaka (Inoue). In between tracking down and killing paedophiles, she has a regular identity as a klutzy waitress at a cafe, where he co-worker Mukai (Okamura) protects her from the sleazy patrons. Monaka’s father is an astronaut, who has been in space for years. His space-station is visited by Kōichi Doi, a researcher investigating ways to preserve bone density in zero-G. However, it appears a combination of factors such as radiation, results in the astronauts mutating into monstrous creatures. After a firefight, Doi and his team bail out as the station disintegrataes, but the monster that Monaka’s father has become, is also on their craft, which crash-lands – conveniently right in her neighbourhood. A cover-up ensues, despite a trail of corpses, and Monaka is given her next mission: to kill the monster, unaware that it’s actually her father.

Which is pretty much where it ends, after a first battle between Monaka and him. Really: WTF? On its own, this is such an entirely pointless release, you have to wonder what happened. Even up to that point, this is problematic in a bunch of way, not least that Monaka is almost a minor character, and it appears to be a sequel in little more than name. While I’m not normally one to criticize a film for a lack of sex, this also lacks the severely transgressive or original qualities which made the original infamous. This is mostly a monster mash, which we’ve seen any number of times before. There is some potential for a second half, but I doubt it will ever happen. This is like tearing a book in two, selling the first half and never publishing the rest. If I had actually paid any money for this, I would be righteously pissed.

Dir: Yasuomi Umetsu
Star (voice): Marina Inoue, Akemi Okamura, Masakazu Morita, Setsuji Satō

Dangerous Lady

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“No luck of the Irish to be found here.”

dangerousladyBased on the debut novel by British crime writer Martina Cole, this depicts the life of Maura Ryan (Lynch), the only daughter in her family, whose brothers are making a push for increased power in the underworld of 1960’s London, much to the disapproval of the Ryan’s matriarch (Hancock). Leading the push is Michael (Isaacs), who has more than a touch of Ronnie Kray about him, being both homosexual and a borderline psychotic. Maura falls in love with Terry Patterson (Teale), and is shocked to discover he’s a policeman. When he comes under pressure from colleagues to use their relationship, he ends it – unaware that Maura has just become pregnant. She is forced to have an abortion, which leaves her insides looking like they’ve been weed-whacked, and vows she’s going to show him, by becoming every bit the gangster peer of her brothers. But the path to the top is littered with dead bodies, of foes, friends and family.

There’s not a great deal here which you haven’t seen in a million other dramas about organized crime, be they set in America with the mafia, or Hong Kong and the triads. The whole “trying to go straight and make an honest life” thing is certainly not new, and strapping a skirt on, isn’t enough to make it so. It’s really the performances which make this work, and the acting is top-notch. Among the men, Isaacs is outstanding, going from zero to brutal in the blink of an eye, and you certainly get the notion of someone who was turned into what he became (Cole doesn’t explicitly snort derisively at “born that way”, but it’s certainly implied abuse as a youngster by another mobster is behind many of Michael’s problems). He’s a bundle of conflicting emotions: fiercely loyal to family members, but capable of savage brutality to anyone who betrays him, or whom he considers a threat.

But it’s Lynch and Hancock who are the driving force here, and both are excellent. The latter was a veteran of 40-plus years in plays, films and TV, and portrays Mrs. Ryan as being a loving mother, but one who gradually comes to the conclusion that they are beyond her control, Michael in particular. However, by the time she has realized this, she’s helpless to do anything much about it, except bar Michael from the house, even though that causes her pain, probably only a mother can know. Lynch plays Maura with very much the same streak of stubborn steel. As the show develops over its 50-minutes episodes, she becomes someone who won’t let anyone, least of all her family, tell her what to do, because she has seen the consequences of those bad decisions. She may not be right, but if she isn’t, at least it’s her own choice. You can’t help rooting for Maura, a victim of circumstance, as she negotiates the tricky life of a woman in the era, especially one in an area certainly not exactly female-friendly.

It’s slightly disappointing that we don’t get to see Maura go all Scarface on anyone; despite the cover picture, I’m not certain I recall her pulling the trigger at any point. However, that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm  for a solid slab of television drama, and we were sad to reach the end and realize that there were only four episodes – it’s an idea which could certainly have sustained a full season. I’ve now acquired a few of Cole’s books, and look forward to reading them in due course.

Dir: John Woods
Star: Susan Lynch, Jason Isaacs, Owen Teal, Sheila Hancock