Nikita – Sexy Killer

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“French kissing… And rather more…”

[Note. This is a XXX-rated film, so while I’m being very restrained, the discussion of it is, of necessity, still for mature readers.]

nikita sexy killerI don’t have any problem with pornography, but the concept of porn with a storyline leaves me somewhat baffled: it’s a combination that doesn’t seem to make sense. Personally, I either want to watch people having sex or a movie with actual characters and a storyline; I don’t think I’ve ever been in the mood where I’ve thought, “I want 2 1/2 hours that combine hardcore pornography with more traditional elements of cinema,” but that’s what you have here. Actually, 2 1/2 hours of hardcore pornography alone, seems like serious overkill, by a factor of somewhere between five and ten. I certainly didn’t get through this in one sitting.

But I was intrigued by the concept. The porn parody has a long, disreputable history, from Skinemax fluff like Lord of the G-Strings through to hardcore entries like – and, I swear, I’m not making this up – Naporneon Dynamite. But this, dating from somewhere between 1996 and 1999, depending on which source you believe, is the first I’m aware of which was based on an action heroine. [Subsequent investigation turned up what appear to be multiple entries involving Lara Croft-alikes. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for reviews here] The star here, Sarah Young, got her start doing Page 3 shoots at the age of 14 (!), and transitioned to hardcore later, under the care of her future ex-husband, Hans Moser. Last I could find out, she had quit the adult industry, and was studying to be a lawyer.

Anyway. This film may simply be titled “Sexy Killer”, going by the print – this would make more sense from a “not having Luc Besson sue your ass off” front, but the IMDb begs to differ, so I’m going with that. It certainly does follow the basic storyline of Nikita, particularly early on, though the crime which gets the heroine, Sarah Lester (Young) on her journey into Nikita, is a home invasion – albeit one which turns into a group sex scene between the actual invading of the home and the cops showing up. Then, as in the original, she shoots a cop while high, but is bailed out of the resulting life sentence, by Serge (Clark), who offers her an alternative: wet work and other operations for the organization in which he works. There’s a restaurant scene where she has to assassinate another diner, and another mission involves sniping from a window, both of which will be familiar to fans. But the film does divert at the end, where – and I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone – Nikita lifts some incriminating documents she’s supposed to be recovering, and uses this as leverage to break free from her employers. Which is actually a kinda cool idea, I have to admit. I also appreciated the cat-fight between Nikita and her mentor/colleague, Jeanette (Sartori). Besson missed a trick there, I feel. And the subsequent lesbian canoodling.

Mostly, though, it’s about the sex. Lots and lots of sex, with the ratio of that to plot being approximately 3:1. And, since the running time is 152 minutes, that is an awful lot of multiple aardvarking, as Joe Bob Briggs used to call it. As for what happens in the remaining 38 minutes (approx), you have to cut the performances some slack, given dubbing where the voice actors are far more enthusiastic with regard to moaning and groaning, than the actual dialogue. But, actually, the actors aren’t bad: in particular, Clark is spot-on, as the world-weary agent tasked with keeping his rebellious underlings in line, and a good equivalent to Tchéky Karyo (or Gabriel Byrne, if you prefer the remake). But the action scenes are perfunctory, and little more than a token gesture – admittedly, it’s an entirely different kind of action in which the makers are interested, so criticizing them for this seems irrelevant. It is possible to make films that mesh hardcore sex with narrative in an interesting way: Caligula is perhaps the best-known example, and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, by reports, also does so. Here? Not so much, and it’s probably of interest only to Nikita completists.

Dir: Mario Bianchi (as “Nicholas Moore”)
Star: Sarah Young, Christoph Clark, Stefania Sartori

Ninja Girl: Assassin of Darkness

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“Non-ninja, not noteworthy.”

ninja girlCall me picky or pedantic, but to me, a movie titled Ninja Girl: Assassin of Darkness, should contain a reasonable amount of girl ninjaing, along with, one would hope, some assassinations. Running through a dark room once with a sword doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately, the makers of this appear to take a different view, feeling that their story, about a ninja girl sitting around feeling sorry for herself and bumping uglies with her Manchurian Candidate boyfriend, is more interesting. They’re wrong.

The setting here is modern Tokyo, apparently now a hotbed of espionage. The Japanese government defends against these by using ninjas, whose skills are passed on, not through years of training, but by heredity. After their father – one such ninja – is killed, sisters Naomi (Shou) and Sayaka are left to fend for themselves, unsure which, if either, of them has received the ninja gene, because it will only be discovered when the recipient is “awoken.” Naomi is by far the less stable of the two. After being dumped, she spends all the time sitting around her apartment, blacking out and occasionally attempting self-harm: seriously, that’s it, she says, “I know my sister and my room.” But her life is changed when she bumps into Mitsuyoshi, who opens a window into her sorry, sad life. Except, every so often, he gets phone-calls which cause him to drop everything – including, amusingly, a naked Naomi – and go out on missions.

Eventually – and I’m talking about 70 minutes into an 80-minute film – things do eventually lead to some activities which at least border on the ninja-esque. However, Shou’s talents in this area are about as feeble as you’d expect from a porn-star whose works, Google informs me, include titles such as Openly-Displayed Squirting Orgasm. Though I suppose you could argue that’s a bit of a ninja skill, in and of itself. There is little or no information about this one, which doesn’t seem to have an IMDb entry: it was made in 2006, according to the copyright, and apparently on a budget consisting of the spare change left over after purchasing a bowl of ramen noodles. The actress who plays Sayaka is not bad, with one scene where she and her sister are talking, that does actually manage to put over some emotion. I also get the sense the next part, now Naomi is “awakened”, might not be so bad. But as is, the bulk of this opener is uninteresting talk, with occasional interruptions for bad action.

Dir: No clue
Star: Nishino Shou

Miss Meadows

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“There are bad people in the world and they shouldn’t be around the good people, especially the little ones,”

miss meadowsA young woman is walking down the street. A truck pulls up alongside her, and the driver starts talking to her, at first nicely, but gradually more crudely. When she spurns his advances, he pulls a gun. However, the woman pulls her own weapon from her handbag and shoots him dead. Welcome to the world of Miss Meadows (Holmes), where bad behaviour is countered with lethal force. It’s an offshoot of the “urban vigilante” film, where someone goes off the rails in response to rudeness and the perceived failures of modern culture, rather than a direct threat. Falling Down was perhaps the first example, also seen in Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America. Both those were rather more acerbic than this, gynocentric entry, which perhaps has more in common with John Waters’ Serial Mom. At one point, a cop calls Miss Meadows a “Pulp Fiction Mary Poppins,” and that’s a fairly accurate high-concept here.

She’s a somewhat nomadic first-grade substitute teacher, with a past which clearly contained a defining trauma, who has long phone calls with her mother (Smart), and seeks to protect her local community from an influx of criminal elements. But when she meets and falls for a cop (Dale), who gradually realizes the woman he’s seeing may also be the killer his colleagues are hunting. And he’s not the only person who discovers the secret behind her facade. Meadows is an wonderful and engaging concoction, a throwback to an earlier era of politeness and courtesy, and its that contrast to her ruthless approach, tap-dancing her way to mass murder, that drives the film. It’s not entirely successful; the storyline, overall, relies too much on good fortune and convenience [every fast-food restaurant I’ve been in has surveillance cameras; the one here, not so much], and also tends to the obvious – a priest who molests children, there’s a shocker. It would make for a far ‘edgier’ film, if there was more grey involved in her targets, even at the risk of losing some of the audience. Killing paedophiles and murderers is an easy option, weakening the moral dilemma posed here.

But I thoroughly enjoyed Holmes’s performance; I hadn’t seen her in anything since Thank You for Smoking, back in 2005, before she became most famous for being Mrs. Tom Cruise. She takes a character that possesses two distinct, largely-opposing aspects, and nails it: Miss Meadows is, at once, charming and, clearly, barking mad, with a grip on reality that, we discover, may be a great deal looser than it initially appears. Concentrating more on these psychological aspects – perhaps instead of the rather implausible romantic angle – might have boosted this film out of the “quirkily forgettable” niche into which it is instead dropped.

Dir: Karen Leigh Hopkins
Star: Katie Holmes, James Badge Dale, Callan Mulvey, Jean Smart

The Legend of Princess Olga

starstar

“Olga, Tigress of Siberia”

princessolgaWhile the film itself is not that good, it did introduce me to a new action heroine of history: Olga of Kiev, who seems to have been a serious bad-ass, even by the high standards of European bad-asses of the time. There’s some suggestion she was of Viking extraction, with her name originally Helga, and that would certainly make sense. She married Igor of Kiev around 903, and after his death, ruled the state of Kievan Rus’ for 18 years, in the name of her young son, Svyatoslav. The Russian Primary Chronicle recounts how Igor was killed by a neighbouring tribe, the Drevlians, and that’s where things kick off, because they then dispatched a delegation of 20 to pressure Olga into marrying their Prince Mal, so he would become the rule of Kievan Rus’. She had them buried alive, though sent word back that she accepted, only if the Drevlians sent their most distinguished men to accompany her on the journey to their land. Upon their arrival, she offered them a warm welcome and an invitation to clean up after their long journey. After they entered the bathhouse, she locked the doors and set fire to the building.

Having disposed in one stroke of the Drevlian elite, she then invited the unwitting remainder to a funeral feast at the site of her husband’s grave so she could mourn him. That didn’t go quite as the guest planned either: “When the Derevlians were drunk, she bade her followers to fall upon them, and went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Derevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.” First, however, with the aid of some inflammatory pigeons, she set their city on fire. “The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.” She was also the first Rus’ ruler to be converted to Christianity, being baptized by Emperor Constantine VII, and in 1547 was canonized by the Orthodox Church, who proclaimed her “equal to the apostles,” one of only five women so honoured in the history of Christianity.

Hard for any film to portray a woman like that, and to be honest, this one doesn’t succeed. It’s an odd structure which is mostly told in double flashback, from the perspective of Olga’s grandson, Vladimir. On his death-bed, he’s trying to figure out the true nature of his late grandmother (Efimenko), and we then see him as a youth (Ivanov), asking a number of people about her. That includes a Greek scholar who recounts the bloody story above, but also his housekeeper mother, whose memories reveal a different side to Olga. That’s perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect, the problem of separating myth and legend from reality, when everyone has a viewpoint that shows a different aspect of a historical figure. However, the format keeps the film too distant, and I really wish it had focused more on Olga, rather than (the much less-interesting) Vladimir. While made in 1983, it also suffers from an extremely-stilted approach that feels a couple of decades earlier, and despite its potential, certainly falls short of doing its titular subject justice.

Dir: Yuri Ilyenko
Star: Lyudmila Efimenko, Les Serdyuk, Vanya Ivanov, Konstantin Stepankov

Operation Angelica, by Juliene Lloyd

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

operation angelicaFull disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author’s offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. Author Lloyd dedicates this debut novel, appropriately, “to all the invisible heroes in the world who risk their own lives to save others.”

It’s the opener for a projected series, the Vormund/Ames Files, dealing with a secretive consulting firm that caters to governments and businesses with needs in the security and counter-terrorism area. What they provide is usually advice and analysis –but there are times when they go beyond that. While they’re not amoral mercenaries simply out for a buck –they choose to be on the side of good, not evil– they may operate on the edge of the law, and in operations where their employers sometimes might want some “plausible deniability.” The author’s own comment (in a personal message to this reviewer) sums her work up best: “There are serious themes, but framed in terms of good, evil, and hope. I consider my characters to be imperfect people trying their best in an imperfect world.”

Though published this year, the book is set in 2008. A few months before it opens, a small party of innocent and idealistic American botanists ventured into the jungles of Honduras, researching medicinal plants. Unfortunately, they blundered into the territory used by drug lord Hector Vega, and while trying to flee from a fire fight between his minions and a rival gang, they were all brutally gunned down. Both the U.S. and Honduran governments know, from eyewitness testimony, that Vega was responsible; but his political connections and back-scratching arrangements give him blank-check immunity. He’s not as home free as he imagines, however, because the grief-stricken fiancee of one of the murdered men is a soft-spoken young woman from Georgia named Elizabeth Ashton. Liz is a decent, ethically-oriented person who cares about others and about doing the right thing. She’s also a professional sniper for the FBI, with the rank of Special Agent, and probably as deadly a markswoman with a rifle as it’s humanly possible to be.

The plot here has two focal points of action (and this doesn’t disclose anything that’s not already outlined in the cover copy): the Vega problem in the early chapters, and the main plot strand, code-named “Operation Angelica.” Law enforcement runs in Liz’s family (her father is a county sheriff, and her brother a state trooper); respect for legal due process and commitment to basic justice are both important principles for her. When they’re in irreconcilable conflict, and she has to decide which one trumps the other, she doesn’t take it lightly. Personally, I don’t have any problem with her decision (I’m much less hard on her on that score than she is on herself!). But it’s one that, eventually, brings her to the notice of the Vormund/Ames management –who are impressed rather than scandalized. That leads to a job offer (and given the series title, it’s no surprise that she accepts!).

The company’s current big project in hand is a rescue mission for a group of hostages –especially a critically ill journalist with both Columbian and French citizenship– held by a drug-trafficking Marxist guerrilla rebel group in the South American jungle. We also have a sub-plot involving a high-ranking CIA official with a gambling-debts problem and a lot fewer ethical scruples than he needs to have.

Lloyd’s prose style is accomplished and assured, which is to say that she handles diction, syntax, and vocabulary very well (a refreshing experience nowadays!). In 253 pages, I only found four typos, which indicates pretty good proofreading. She also appears to have genuine technical knowledge of firearms (although modern pistols don’t have to be “cocked,” as one is here; but many writers make that minor mistake) and of the training, procedures and equipment involved in SWAT-style ops; I don’t have personal experience in that area, but the writing has a solidly realistic feel to me. Not only Liz, but all of the major characters here are clearly delineated and lifelike.

Character and relationship development occupies more of the book than action, as does planning, intelligence gathering and set-up –that’s also realistic for this type of thing, where the time involved in actual gun-blazing action, if you’ve planned well, is actually relatively brief. That said, there’s a good deal of taut tension that mounts steadily before the shooting starts, and there’s a high body count when it’s finished. (Also, GWG fans will appreciate the fact that this novel gives us at least two major female characters who can handle a gun capably, not just one; CIA agent Katherine Williams is certainly one formidable lady!)

For the most part, the plotting here is linear and straightforward, without a lot of convolution, and this is a quick read. I withheld the fifth star in my rating because of several logical missteps in the CIA-official subplot; but that didn’t stop me from really liking the book, and I definitely intend to follow the series!

Note: Liz and other characters use a certain amount of bad language, of the d/h/s/a-word sort, at times, but no obscenity or religious profanity. Their speaking style is well within the bounds of realism for these types of characters and situations. One of the flashbacks has Liz recalling a conversation she and her fiance had when they were lying together in bed, and it’s clear that another couple make love at one point; but there’s no explicit sex, and Lloyd doesn’t portray any of these four people as promiscuous types.

Author: Juliene Lloyd
Publisher: Dark Sword Press. Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

[A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads]

Mankillers

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“Big guns, and even bigger hair.”

mankillers - vhs1I remember bumping into this one back in the 90’s, on VHS [kids, ask your parents!]. Stumbling across it again recently, I wondered why I had ever bothered – but then I discovered the cornucopia of lurid video sleeves used to lure unwary buyers into purchasing or renting it, and it all made much more sense. I can’t remember exactly which one was on the British video releaase, but I think it was a slight variant of #2 (below, left), over a gratuitous background of exploding fireballs. There are times when I miss those days of prowling the local video store, or market stalls, picking up cinematic “gems” based entirely on their covers. And then, I watch something like this, and remember how few of those purchases ever came anywhere close to living up to their promotional material.

Much as in Naked Avenger, this focuses on an international white-slavery ring, inexplicably appearing to be operated out of a run-down junkyard in some backwoods community. The chief perp in this case is John Mickland (Zipp), a former government agent whose inside knowledge means he can easily counter all “official” efforts to bring him down. So, the government turns to Rachael McKenna (Aldon), who visits a local prison to recruit a “grubby half-dozen” of ne’er-do-wells whom she can lick into shape, in order to form a squad that can head into Mickland’s lair and take down his operation. Quite why they have to be women, is never explained: if there’d been some element of subterfuge, such as infiltration by pretending to be merchandise, that’d have made some sense. Instead, it’s not much more than a traipse through a forest, and a gunfight which follows: since there’s no apparent interest in capturing anyone, would have been more logical just to call in an air-strike. But then, I suppose, we wouldn’t have got the lengthy training montage. And, let’s face it, that’s basically just an excuse for hot-pants and crop-tops, as well as some of the eightiest hair I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the film needs a widescreen release, so we can appreciate the full majesty of the coiffeurs on view.

Not least, because there is precious little else to appreciate. This is such a painfully poverty-stricken production – though it looks like Avatar in comparison to Naked Avenger, that when the action comes, it looks more like little kids playing soldiers. When it comes down to McKenna going one-on-one with Mickland, it becomes somewhat more interesting, largely because the latter is as hard to kill as Jason Vorhees, and is capable of taking multiple bullets, yet can still drive away. Lucky that our heroine came prepared, even for this eventuality. However, getting to that final point will tax the patience of most viewers – as well as their hairdressers.

Dir: David A. Prior
Star: Lynda Aldon, William Zipp, Edy Williams, Gail Fisher
a.k.a. Death Squad

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Agency of Vengeance: Dark Rising

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“Hello, film poster. You appear to have my full attention.”

darkrisingThis makes a great deal more sense when you realize it’s actually a sequel, not only to Cymek’s earlier Dark Rising, but also the TV series that followed. The US/Netflix title and blurb cunningly manage to avoid mentioning this, which certainly explains the sense that you have walked into the middle of a story. For instance, none of the characters are apparently fazed by the fact that interdimensional portals have opened, allowing all manner of icky creatures to enter this Earth’s realm from a “Dark Earth”. It’s up to the Rising Dark Agency, a Government department [apparently staffed by about six people] to keep the resulting mayhem in check. Chief among its operatives are Jason Parks (Cannon, a dead-ringer for Dolph Lundgren) and Summer Vale (Kingsley, also the director’s wife), whose combination of human and demon DNA you have probably noticed on the poster. And are perhaps still staring at.

Anyway, beginning with the munching of Summer’s fiance by a giant worm during their wedding ceremony, this installment sees the arrival of wannabe deity Mardock, who appears to be trying to target Summer, as the biggest threat to his/her/its rise to power. As the RDA investigate, they also come under attack, and it’s up to the small band of survivors, along with demonic nerd Bulo (Nahrgang), to try and prevent the resurrection of Mardock. But before they get there, they discover that somebody left for dead in a previous episode, might not be quite as deceased as thought, and has now switched sides, largely out of bitterness at being abandoned.

At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I did a much better job of explaining the plot than the film does, and it’s less a story that you follow, than one where you cling on to the roof-rack, presuming that it will all make sense, or at least come to a halt eventually. Hard to know how much blame is the makers, and how much the marketers for not mentioning all that has gone before. However, if you’re prepared to cut that aspect some slack, there are aspects that are fun, not least Kingsley, who seems to spend half the film in her underwear for one thinly-generated reason or other. It’s all in good fun though, and the non-serious tone is generally very obvious, most particularly in Bulo, though his character occasionally veers close to the line where endearing becomes irritating. It’s nice to see a matching villainess as well, with a similar… ah, taste in costumes, and I’ll confess that despite a budget well short of the imagination, overall, I was entertained, and left with a non-zero interest in going back to check out the previous installments. Hopefully, they will make rather more sense than this one.

Dir: Andrew Cymek
Star: Brigitte Kingsley, Landy Cannon, Julia Schneider, Nug Nahrgang

Iron Bloom, by Billy Wong

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2action2

ironbloomThis first book in Wong’s Legend of the Iron Flower series is one I got for my Kindle app at a time when it was being given away free. I only read books that way to see whether I consider them worth buying a copy –and in this case, the print edition is now on my book shelf. As a first novel, it’s not unflawed, but I liked it well enough to support the author by buying a copy, and plan to continue reading the series.

The Legend of the Iron Flower takes place in a medieval-style fantasy world; it’s sword-and-sorcery pulp, with much more emphasis on swords than sorcery. Our heroine, Rose Agen, is a teenage girl here (the succeeding novels and short e-stories follow her career into the ensuing years, when she’s older.) Rose was born to a snow-bound mother in the midst of the coldest winter in memory, with the firewood gone, and survived. She grew to be a tall, big-boned girl with a matching physique, and an iron constitution; people call her “god-touched” or a “freak” (sometimes in the same breath). Among the youth in her village, she’s the best wrestler, and like the others has fenced some with wooden swords, just for the fun of it. But her life takes a different turn when she kills her first man (in self-defense) at the age of 15; and over the next couple of years, a LOT of men follow him to the grave.

A genuinely ethical person who cares about others, Rose takes up the sword only to protect innocents; she sees her ability as carrying with it a duty. She kills only the aggressively wicked, and prefers nonviolent approaches when that’s possible, but the burden of taking many lives (not all of whom, as she recognizes, are as evil as others, and some of whom may have people who love them) still weighs heavily, and believably, on her. Sometimes she sees herself as a “monster,” and she can agonize over whether she’s too quick to resort to the sword. These conflicts are intensified when she meets up with a sect of philosophically-based based pacifists, and she and their young leader, Ethan, fall for each other. (Teenage love here leads to teenage sex; but Wong only refers to this directly in one place, and handles it very tastefully; there’s no explicit sex.) I didn’t see the romantic complication as cheapening the philosophical debate; rather, I saw it as intensifying the stakes in the issue, and adding to its emotional force.

The internal and external debates here are simple but serious, and not superficial because they’re simple. Like Rose (and Wong), I come down on the side of believing that defensive violence is sometimes necessary; but don’t revel in the necessity; and I think the kind of discussion that takes place here is worth having and thinking about. (Contrary to what those who see fantasy literature as “escapist” imagine, Rose’s fantasy world isn’t the only place where brigandage, war and tyranny occur; they seem to be pretty widespread, and to present exactly the same issues, here as well!) Rose isn’t an unflawed plaster saint who never makes bad choices; besides teenage sex, she engages in some teenage drinking, and abuses alcohol on a couple of occasions as an opiate for her stress and conflict. But even if I didn’t approve of some of her choices, I always understood and liked her. She’s a believable teen, considering that her culture seems to be one that doesn’t coddle adolescence, and expects kids to grow up quickly; her age shows in her wanderlust and thirst for adventure, and in her relationship with her parents (loving, but not without conflicts). But she’s mature in many of the ways that count.

Rose is a round and dynamic, well developed character. Some of the secondary characters, like Ethan and mercenary warrior Angela (we actually get two fighting ladies here for the price of one!) are also relatively well-drawn. Wong writes action scenes well, and he delivers plenty of them here. But even with the staggering body count and level of physical mayhem here (fighters can get beheaded, gutted, lose limbs, etc.) he doesn’t wallow into unnecessarily graphic descriptions of gore; there’s no feeling of a “pornography of violence” to the book. The plot has a variety of situations, and threw me some surprises at times. He puts Rose into thought-provoking situations (one in particular stands out) where the question of what response is right or wrong doesn’t have easy answers. And he deserves credit for giving us a brawny, battle-scarred heroine whose looks don’t conform to the Victoria’s Secret party-line model of female beauty. (That doesn’t mean she isn’t beautiful, outside as well as inside; it just means that a thin, slight build, an unmarked face and an undamaged bust aren’t essential aspects of beauty.)

As fantasy worlds go, Wong’s is on the low-magic end of the spectrum. Great sorcerers practiced it in the past, and have left some enchanted artifacts and spells around, but the knowledge of magic is for the most part lost; and creatures like ogres exist, but we don’t see much of them. Personally, I don’t see this as a flaw. The author’s world-building, though, is definitely weak. We know that Kayland is a large, patched-together kingdom forged from many formerly independent entities, that its technology is basically medieval, and that its religion is vaguely polytheistic, with an afterlife where rewards or punishment depends on behavior. But that’s really about all. There isn’t much sense of the culture, or of cultural differences, and both all Kaylanders and the foreign Vlin barbarians apparently speak the same language.

Wong’s writing style is barebones and minimalistic, lacking in texture and polish. He sometimes falls into the trap of telling rather than showing, and at times fails to provide information we’d like, and which would enhance the story. (For instance, we’re not even told Rose’s age, or given a physical description of her, until well after she’s introduced; and I’d have liked a lot more description of Millie’s underground cave.) Dialogue often sounds like it’s written to serve the plot, not to reflect the way these characters would actually speak in the situation. (And while the author avoids obvious Americanisms in the character’s speech, it is a bit odd in this type of fantasy world that everyone has first names, like Eddie or Millie, that could have been taken from any modern American list of baby names!) It’s not true, IMO, as some reviewers have complained, that Wong’s plotting is aimless; although it’s somewhat episodic, it does have a structure of story arc and resolution. But it can seem aimless because it appears to be occurring in a time vacuum; we learn that Rose has turned 16 at one point, but there are very few indications of how much time passes in different parts of the tale, and no notices of seasonal changes, so there’s very little to peg an internal chronology on.

For me, perhaps the most serious weakness is that Rose is TOO incredibly resilient and hard to kill. Action heroes and heroines, of course, tend to be super-tough and larger than life; but nonetheless, we do have the feeling that Conan or Jirel of Joiry are mortal. True, Rose can be hurt seriously, bleed copiously, feel pain galore, and be laid low for a time by wounds. But on at least four occasions, she survives wounds that she and everyone else thinks are mortal, and realistically would be; and she can keep fighting long after any normal human, no matter how tough, would be unconscious. (That’s true of some other characters, too.) That makes for spectacular fight scenes, it doesn’t make for realism. It also reduces the stakes in her battles, and makes her harder for me to relate to (just as I don’t personally relate as well to superhero characters as I do to normally-abled humans).

In the same vein, I would really question whether any human being could sustain a 30-foot drop onto solid rock without serious injury. And on one occasion when Rose comes up against a magically-empowered adversary, the magic just wimps out at a crucial point to allow her overcome it, which I thought was a cheap way out on the author’s part. So while I did like the book, these drawbacks kept me from rating it more highly overall than I did. As noted above, this is the author’s first novel, and he’s a relatively young writer. His stylistic skills are likely to improve with practice; and they show to better advantage in short fiction. I’ve read several yarns in his Tales of the Gothic Warrior story cycle (set in the present, and featuring Freya Blackstar) and liked all but one; I can also recommend the stand-alone e-story “Last Minute Replacement,” and one of Side Stories of the Iron Flower, “Bad Milk,” to action heroine fans. (The latter is the only one of Rose’s other adventures that I’ve read so far, but these two won’t be the last!)

Note: Bad language in this novel is relatively infrequent, and strictly of the d-word or h-word sort.

Author: Billy Wong
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Twins Mission

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“To bead, or not to bead, that is the question…”

Twins_Mission-posterTwins Effect, the first film starring the Cantopop duo, Twins, was a frothily entertaining mix of action and humour, that was surprisingly entertaining. Its sequel? Despite a stellar supporting cast, and some great action, not so much, with a historical setting, and a balance that tilted unfavourably towards comedy. This third entry does at least return to the modern era, and also continues some impressively slick fights – and more broken glass than any other movie I can immediately think of – but has a similarly lumpy attitude, feeling almost like two films spliced together.

The McGuffin is a Tibetan relic called the Heaven’s Bead, long alleged to have magical powers to cure illness – which is actually pretty damn big, since I was expecting something that could be measured in millimetres, rather than feet. On its way by train, a robbery attempted staged by an evil collective of twins (rather than Twins, if you see what I mean) leads to it ending up in a bag belonging to the owner of a store in a Hong Kong mall. Meanwhile, good twins Pearl (Chung) and Jade (Choi) are working as trapeze artists in the circus, but end up helping the guardian of the bead, Uncle Lucky (Hung) and his adopted son (Wu) to track down the artefact. But the evil twins also have their agent, Lillian, who is lured in with the promise of the bead’s power being use to cure her cancer-stricken little sister, the unfortunately-named Happy.

Yes, this doesn’t exactly take the high road in terms of pathos, milking child illness for every ounce of maudlin sentimentality it can muster, when not making xenophobic jokes about the funny way foreigners speak. There is also a fight over an autographed picture of David Copperfield [Jade + Pearl’s idol], which ends with it being eaten by a hippo. This apparently tells us two things about China: people still care about David Copperfield, and it may be the only place where circuses that use wild animals are still welcome. I’m not sure which is more surprising, but that’s the level of nonsense between the action that you will have to endure, and I’m not sure the plot makes any actual sense in terms of logic or motivation. Fortunately, the saving grace is said action, with one standout fight between the good twins and several sets of evil twins in the mall, and another at the end, in the evil twins’ lair. Both are long, inventive sequences on finding new and interesting ways to break plate glass, though both the wire-fu and the stunt doubling for the starlets are a bit excessive.

I originally gave this 2.5 stars, then upped it to three, when I realized that was what I gave Twins Effect II, and this surely wasn’t any worse, was it? But on further reflection, it probably was, and I downgraded it again: there’s about 20 good minutes in this, and even Sammo couldn’t save the rest.

Dir: Kong Tao-Hoi
Star: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Wu Jing, Sammo Hung

009-1: The End of the Beginning

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“Spy vs. Spy”

seal009-1Partly to celebrate the 75th birthday of its late creator, Shotaro Ishinomori, the first live-action feature adaptation of his spy series 009-1 was made – it had previously been made into a TV show, during the late sixties, and a 12-episode anime series in 2006. This version was helmed by Sakamoto, best known for his work on the action in Kamen Rider and Power Rangers, but we’ve been a fan since his involvement in 1997’s Drive, with Mark Dacascos, whose fights still hold up very well today. And this is almost as much fun, combining bone-crunching action with more philosophical insights, into what it means to be human.

The heroine is Mylene (Iwasa), an orphan who was recruited by a Japanese spy group, and transformed into a cyborg superagent, equipped with enhanced senses as well as weapons in unusual places. We first see in her action dismantling a black market organ trafficking ring, and her next mission is to rescue Dr. Clyne, a scientist who was her cyber-“mother”. However, when she discovers Chris (Kinomoto), one of the victims she freed from the organ traffickers, in Clyne’s hands, awkward questions begin to be raised. When she goes off book, and is stripped of her 00 status, Mylene finds herself being hunted both by the bad guys, not the least of whom is played by Nagasawa, and her erstwhile agency allies.

While slightly more restrained on the nudity front, this feels like it could be another entry in the Naked series of movies from Hong Kong started by Naked Killer, sharing a similarly heady combination of sex and violence. Only slightly though, most obviously perhaps the sequence near the end where the heroine, wearing what can only be described as a bondage bra, is tied up and licked from toe to head by someone who’s a convincing simulacrum of her mother. Years of therapy beckon for that, me thinks. But if not perhaps fun for all the family, the action is excellent, and there is plenty to go around, with a laudable number of the chief participants on both sides being female: it’s also pretty messy, though the impact is lessened by the obvious use of CGI for much of the blood (albeit, far from all!). Fortunately, that doesn’t extend to the action, which is almost all in camera, with some stunt doubling that is kept nicely plausible.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have not consumed any of the other versions, so I cannot say how this compares to those, or the original manga. What I can say is, on its own terms, this is more than satisfactory, providing a slickly-produced piece of quality entertainment that contains plenty of hard-hitting action. The universe created certainly has room for further exploration, and I’m hoping this is successful enough that we get to see more of it.

Dir: Koichi Sakamoto
Star: Mayuko Iwasa. Minehiro Kinomoto, Nao Nagasawa, Mao Ichimichi