Guardian

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“A coherent plot. It’s vastly over-rated…”

How you react to a film isn’t always a logical exercise. I’m a great proponent of “guilty pleasure” films: movies that, by objective standards, are generally not very good, yet still manage to be, on one level or another, thoroughly entertaining. Barb Wire is one: as soon as you realize it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi version of Casablanca, it’s totally awesome. Add this Indonesian movie to the same pile: it contains many things which, on their own, I loathe; yet here, for whatever reason, the whole ends up being a great deal more entertaining that you’d expect from the sum of its woeful parts.

Let’s start with that plot. Which is certainly a great deal more than the film does. Seriously: it takes 50 minutes for anything approaching a meaningful plot element to show up. It opens with a man driving home, being ambushed and stabbed to death. His wife and young daughter find him. Fast-forward ten years, and some thugs attack the house with what may be the longest single burst of automatic weaponry in cinema history, followed up, for no particular reason, by two rounds from a rocket launcher. Cue mother Sarah (Diyose) and pouty teenage daughter Marsya (Camesi) going on the run: Mom has clearly been anticipating this for a while, and has a hideout, stash of weapons and martial arts training. Turns out, there are two factions at play here: the one seeking to kill the family is led by corrupt cop Captain Roy (Fernandez), while playing defense is Paquita (Carter, best known for her role in Falling Skies), who… Well, you will find out eventually. Just don’t hold your breath.

guardian2.jogFor before you reach that point, there follows alternating scenes of ludicrous excessive gun-battles, and Marsya whining “What’s going on? Make it stop? I said, WHAT’S GOING ON? I want an ice-cream!” [I may have imagined the last, I’m not sure] Normally, this kind of thing would be incredibly grating. But let’s face it, she’s basically echoing what the audience is thinking, so it’s okay.  Throw in Kardit’s style of action, which consists of jerking the camera back and forth while simultaneously zooming in and out, and you’ve got the recipe for a headache-inducing exercise, about as far from fellow Indonesian flick The Raid as possible [seriously, if you haven’t seen The Raid, go do so now. It’s the best action movie of the past decade. You can thank me later.].

And yet… If you can handle the fact that the ratio of bullets to reloading scenes is several hundred to one, cope with not knowing what the hell is going on for half the movie, and tolerate characters that are basically a procession of shallow genre tropes, you’ll have fun. Against the odds, I did: there’s at least four women here with no qualms about kicking ass in industrial quantities, and both Divose and Carter bring the necessary intensity to their roles [there’s one awesome shot where Paquita is chasing after a car on foot and is just screaming at it]. There’s a chunk at the end where all three leading ladies are simultaneously fighting for their lives, and that’s a good deal more progressive than you’d get to see in most Western films. For all its many, copious flaws, I was kept entertained – as much by the daft insanity on view, as in spite of it. In the right hands, this could have been awesome: Kardit clearly is not those hands, yet it’s still more fun than I expected.

Dir: Helfi Kardit
Star: Dominique Diyose, Belinda Camesi, Sarah Carter, Nino Fernandez

Traitors

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“Punk’s not dead.”

traitorsWhat counts as an “action heroine” is dependent on culture. As was saw in Offside, if you’re Iranian, something as apparently normal as going to a football game can be a dangerously transgressive act. The heroine here, Malika (Ben Acha), has a little more freedom, living in Morocco, but it’s hardly an oasis of feminist freedom by Western standards. Still, she’s pretty out there, being the lead singer in a punk band, the titular Traitors, and also a dab hand with a monkey wrench, working intermittently in her father’s garage. It’s the former that she sees as her ticket out, and a door opens when a producer expresses interest in the band, and offers to help them record a demo. The catch? They have to pay for the studio time themselves: that’s several months’ wages, and it doesn’t help that Malika has just been fired. But a garage customer (Zeguendi) offers her a solution: a one-night job doing a little driving for him.

She’s under no illusions about the reality of what she’s driving, but on the journey from the mountains to Tangiers, she talks to her fellow “mule,” the veteran Amal (Issami), and discovers the unpleasant truths about those she’s working for – worse still, the people above them – as well as that leaving the organization will probably be a lot harder than joining it. When Malika finds out that Amal is pregnant, she hatches a plan that’s either very brave or extremely foolhardy (not that these things are mutually exclusive), to allow her colleague the change to escape. However, doing so will certainly bring down the wrath of her employers, who have a track record of not tolerating employee disloyalty with a forgiving eye.

This is one of those films that is on the fringes of qualification for the site. Malika doesn’t wield a gun or kick anyone’s arse,  but there’s an exchange between the two young women which convinced me of its worth, and that in spirit at least, the heroine is part of the sisterhood we cover here.

Amal: “There was a proverb my mother used to say: if you are the nail, you must endure the knocking.”
Malika: “That’s only half of the proverb. The other part is: if you are the hammer, strike.”

I want that on a T-shirt, and it exemplifies Malika’s attitude perfectly: she’s a hammer made flesh, like her hero, the late Joe Strummer. Of course, the downside of that is, when you’re a hammer, everything else starts looking like a nail. However, Ben Acha does a good job of making a character that could easily have been obnoxious and abrasive, sympathetic instead. The film’s biggest weakness is a script that seems to run out of steam before the end, without anything like a satisfactory climax; instead, it peters out in a not very satisfactory and largely unconvincing manner. Perhaps this is related to this feature being developed out of a short film featuring the same character? Still, it’s a unique little item, and who knew there was such as thing as Moroccan punk – even if it’s every bit as shitty as much of the Western variety!

Dir: Sean Gullette
Star: Chaimae Ben Acha, Soufia Issami, Driss Roukhe, Mourade Zeguendi

Mortal Prey, by John Sandford

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

mortalpreyMurder mysteries typically climax with the apprehension of the murderer, or murderers; but at the conclusion of the 10th Lucas Davenport series novel, Certain Prey, one of the two culprits, Clara Rinker (who’s been a professional hired killer ever since she was 16), made a clean getaway. When I finished that book, I was sure that readers hadn’t seen the last of her. Sure enough, this 13th series installment picks up her story three years later; and I knew that it was a story I couldn’t leave hanging.

It should be stated at the outset that this book has much the same flaws as its predecessor. While the characterizations of the secondary characters are sometimes, I think, a bit sharper here, most of them again are not likable. Series sleuth Davenport is even more unlikeable here than before. His abrasive, cocky, arrogant, “rules-don’t-apply-to-me” personality and his fondness for physical intimidation is clearly meant to give him an edgy, “bad-boy” appeal, but for me just manages to make him annoying. Compared to most traditional fictional detectives, moreover, he’s not in the top league; he’s willing to slog through a lot of leg work, and both books make reference to his uncanny luck, but having case solutions fall into his lap through luck and intuition is a cheap literary substitute for close observation (though here he admittedly does pick up on a couple of crucial details at one key point) and reasoned deduction. (The series isn’t pure noir, but has enough similarity to it that I could recommend it to noir fans; he reminds me more of fictional detectives in that tradition, like Sam Spade –though in fairness to Spade, I can’t imagine the latter freaking out like Davenport does at one place here.)

That the FBI would bring him in to consult on this case at all is also a stretch; apart from luck, he was hardly that effective against Clara in the earlier book. (There, the idea that they would cooperate with the Minneapolis police was quite plausible; but here, though the main setting is St. Louis, there’s apparently no attempt at all to cooperate with the local police there –which isn’t so plausible.) Sandford milks a supposed contrast between the allegedly street-smart local cop culture and the putatively effete, overly technology-reliant FBI mentality for all it’s worth, but I have my doubts about the realism of either end of that portrayal, as well.

However, the strengths of the earlier book are here in spades, too. The foremost one, again, is the portrayal of Clara, who’s one of the more complex, nuanced, vital and fascinating characters you’ll ever meet in the pages of fiction. She was already well-drawn in Certain Prey, which brought to life both her prominent ruthless/callous streak and her off-the-job “regular gal” side. (That book also vividly sketched her formative years, which were genuinely hellish –though if she’d had better moral fiber to start with, being the repeated victim of brutal violence herself would have given her a more compassionate perspective toward other suggested victims.) Here, though, Sandford deepens his portrayal exponentially, digging down to reveal the gentler and kinder side she doesn’t usually display. True, the evil side of her nature is pretty strong, and used to dominating. While she’s no sadist, and isn’t incapable of sparing people’s lives if she doesn’t believe killing is necessary, she also has no qualms at all about taking innocent life as part of her job, or if her survival depends on it (for her, being captured would mean death, since she’d certainly be executed), and she can be highly vengeful.

But though her capacity for empathy with her fellow humans is usually dormant, some people do evoke it; and her conscience isn’t always impotent. She does draw some lines even she won’t cross; and while she may threaten, for intimidation purposes, more than she’ll actually do, her bark is sometimes worse than her bite –even though her bite can be nasty.) And she’s a loyal friend you could literally trust with your life, a caring sister to her weak-minded little brother, and capable of genuine kindness and even love. Sandford shows us both the best and the worst sides of her nature here; it’s not wise to forget the latter for a minute –but not fair to forget the former, either.

Much more than in Certain Prey, the author raises profound ethical questions here, which are compounded of black and white that do represent absolute polarities, but which in the real world intermix in all sorts of challenging shades of gray. They’re not posed explicitly; they just arise naturally out of the situations, and they don’t come across as set up to cynically discredit the idea of absolutes (as they would be in the noir tradition), but rather as serious questions that seek to apply absolutes in a fallen world. (And trying to do that in the context of practical situations –real-life or fictional– is more apt to be illuminating than meditating on detached abstract principles.) The plotting also surpasses even the high standard of the earlier book. Successive developments are again completely unexpected but logical. While the familiar frequent taut tension and suspense is there through much of the book, in about the last fifth or so it becomes nearly unbearable, and the successive surprises literally throw your emotions and expectations around as if you were on a carnival thrill ride. The climax packed an unexpected emotional wallop that blew me out of the water.

It was hard to apply a star rating, but I thought the superior quality of this second novel of the pair deserved four. This is a grim, gritty, violent read, with a high body count; not everyone who dies here deserves to, and a couple of people are gruesomely tortured to death (not by Clara –in fairness to her, that isn’t her style), though their suffering isn’t directly described. Adjectives like comforting, happy and upbeat don’t apply here. But the adjectives riveting, thought-provoking, evocative, and powerful are most definitely appropriate!

Note: As in Certain Prey, there’s a lot of bad language here, often including obscenity, and some very coarse sexual attitudes expressed and evidenced by some of the male characters (but no explicit sex).

Author: John Sandford
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon in all formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Cat Run 2

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“Time for this cat to be put out.”

The original Cat Run was an unexpected pleasure, lifted far above its expected delivery of slick, vapid entertainment by Janet McTeer’s wonderful turn as polite hitwoman Helen Bingham. The sequel lacks McTeer and it’s no surprise that this time, it is no more than slick, vapid entertainment. Leads Anthony (Mechlowicz) and Julian (McAuley) are back, still dabbling in private eye work, and end up in New Orleans after Julian’s cousin, a soldier, is involved in a strange incident at an army research base. Two hookers, brought in for the pleasure of the officers, turn out to be on a mission to steal secret blueprints: one is gunned down, but the other, Tatiana (Zoli) escapes, and a cover-up is instigated by the military. The more our heroes dig, the worse things get, as they attract the attention of the criminal cartel behind Tatiana, led by Hannah Wollcroft (Branch).

catrun2Unfortunately, the makers retained the most irritating part of the original – the two main characters, who remain as blandly irritating as they were previously, delivering the sort of witty banter between friends which only occurs in movies like this. To little or no purpose, they also lob in a meandering, weak subplot about Anthony opening a restaurant and needing to find his inner soul in order to win a televised cooking contest. I’d rather have had more sequences of naked, cybernetically-enhanced Eastern European assassins kicking ass: while your mileage may vary, I suspect I’m not alone there. Zoli does her best, yet is certainly well short of McTeer, even if the script tries to give her the same kind of character arc, and the story does provide her character with a spot more background then usual. Then, at the end, for some reason the script decides it wants to be Iron Man. I’m sure there’s a world in which that story decision made sense.

Still, there are moments which work, such as the the sequence where Tatiana has to take on a ninja posse while simultaneously distracting a guy she picked up speed-dating. It’s clear Stockwell has seen far too many badly-dubbed kung-fu flicks, and I’m right alongside him there. When it isn’t trying too hard, and the film is content to be that slick, vapid entertainment I mentioned, it’s fair enough, with some well-staged action such as a hovercraft chase through the bayou, and a solid sense of atmosphere and location, not present in the original. However, the absence of McTeer leaves a gaping hole, and helps explain why this is a significant step down in almost all other ways.

Dir: John Stockwell
Star: Scott Mechlowicz, Alphonso McAuley, Winter Ave Zoli, Vanessa Branch

Warrior Princess

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“Putting the “que?” in ‘Mongolian barbeque’…”

warriorprincessOh, dear. This spectacular misfire looks nice, with some good cinematography, pretty landscapes and occasionally decent action sequences (though let’s just mention, I doubt the equines here performed under the supervision of the American Humane Association). But the script. I say again: oh, dear. It’s a complete mess, with no sense of narrative flow, peppered with jumps like “eight years later”, and heavily populated with messengers breathlessly rushing it to deliver account of actions off-screen, that typically sound a damn sight more interesting than what’s actually depicted.

The heroine is Ahno (Davaasuren), a princess who falls for a nomadic priest, Galdan (Mondoon). Initially, his vows of celibacy prevent anything from happening, but after his brother is killed (cue the breathless messenger), Galdan takes over as leader, which conveniently allows him to forgo the whole celibacy thing and marry Ahno, who had been betrothed to the brother by her father despite her love for Galdan. However, it’s not long before their relationship is strained, with Ahno torn between duty to her husband and Dad, who are both jostling for position in the power structure of late 17th-century Mongolia. Not helping matters is the Chinese emperor, lurking in the wings and saying ominous things such as, “May one wolf devour the other.” Eventually – and I mean after you’ve endured leaden dialogue such as, “Why would you say something like that to me, knowing it could mean the destruction of my relationship with my nephew?” – this leads to a battle, where Ahno finally straps on her gear. Because the “warrior” part of the title has basically been AWOL, since she accidentally fired an arrow at Galdan, in basically the opening scene of the film.

Part of the problem is my unfortunate decision to watch this in a dubbed version, which rarely helps and can fatally wound even great movies e.g. try watching the English dub of Heroic Trio [no, please don’t]. That can’t explain the horrendous approach to story-telling: it wouldn’t have surprised me to discover the movie originally ran three-plus hours. and was edited down to 95 minutes for a Western audience. While I’ve found nothing to say that was the case, it gives you an idea of what to expect: scenes have no connection to those that precede or follow them, sometimes ending in fade outs that give the impression of a bad TV movie. Maybe it makes more sense to a local audience, since Ahno, who was a real historical figure, is apparently a bit of a national heroine, a la Joan of Arc.

Technically, it is actually slick, and as background viewing it might reach two stars, providing you are not expecting actual warrior princessing of the Xenaesque kind. However, it’s telling that, while I generally use movie watching as an excuse to put off running on our treadmill, in this case I ended up embracing the treadmilling enthusiastically, rather than having to give the film my full attention. Watch Myn Bala instead, if you want a central Asian historical epic.

Dir: Shuudertsetseg Baatarsuren
Star: Otgonjargal Davaasuren, Myagmarnaran Gombo, Myagmar Mondoon, Bayarmagnai Yeguzer

The Vengeance of Fortuna West, by Ray Hogan

vengeanceLiterary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

While I haven’t read many Westerns, my wife is an avid fan of the genre, and I know she also admires the strong, brave heroine type of character (so do I –I married one!), so I got her this book for Christmas, and then read it on her recommendation. Fortuna, the protagonist here, is the recent widow of a New Mexico marshal, who gets herself made a deputy in order to go after the outlaws who killed him –not as improbable a quest in her case as it would have been for most women of that era, since he taught her to handle a Colt more proficiently than most males, and she’s a skilled rider, huntress and tracker who once brought down a bear. (Of course, the terrain she has to search is rough, and the killer outlaws aren’t her only jeopardy.)

Hogan has been a prolific Western author, with well over 100 novels and a large body of short fiction to his credit; the sheer volume of his output probably militated against very careful craftsmanship, and his diction here is mediocre. He also gets his details tangled in a few places, and a few notes don’t ring quite psychologically true. But the novel succeeds as well as it does because of the appeal of Fortuna’s character; the plot is straightforward and Hogan’s writing style simple, making for a quick read (it could be read in a single long sitting, and he provides enough action and suspense that a reader might want to) and Fortuna’s need to choose whether she intends to bring her quarry in alive or execute them on the spot gives the story some moral depth. (There is some bad language here –which Hogan explains, through Fortuna’s musings, as a response to stress-and, obviously, some violence, but no sex.)

Author: Ray Hogan
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Tigresa

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“Tigresa, tigresa, burning bright…”

tigresaTIL there’s a genre of cinema – indeed, an entire culture – called “Nuyorican”, which is for and by the immigrants from Puerto Rico who now live in and around New York. del Mar made five such movies, mostly in the late sixties, but this 1969 production is the sole action heroine entry. It has a nice sense of local atmosphere, feeling a bit like the early work of Abel Ferrara, but also has it’s moments of berserk insanity, which one can only presume must have made sense at the time.

The heroine is Patricia (Faith), a young woman who is bullied by her schoolmates, and whose life reaches a low after she is assaulted by a bedroom intruder, an attack which also results in the death of her father. But, in a plot twist I defy anyone to see coming, she is left half a million dollars in the last will of a Jewish store-owner for whom she works, and this lets Patricia dye her hair blonde and sets her up as the owner of a nightclub, the ‘Chateau Caribe’. She has also developed a heck of a lot more self-confidence, allowing her to take revenge on her former tormentors, rescue other women from assault and continue looking for the man responsible for her assault and her father’s demise. However, her friend, Maria (Lee), has plans to rob Patricia, with the help of her boyfriend, Jimmy (H) – who, it turns out, was also the rapist. They concoct a scheme for Jimmy to seduce Patricia, providing a distraction which will allow them to break into her safe.

There are also subplots involving the local mafiosi, and a police detective (Crespo), who doggedly attempts to solve the crime by dressing as a transvestite hooker. I’m not quite sure hoe that’s intended to work: it might take a while, to say the very least, and my instinct is it probably says more about the cop’s personal proclivities than anything. Certainly puts a new spin on “to protect and serve”. I liked Faith’s performance, since she genuinely manages to get your sympathy, as the dysfunctional nature of her relationship with her father becomes apparent. He gets drunk because its the only way he says he can see his late wife; so she then gets drunk, wanting to see her dead mother too. This is accompanied by a tinkly, music-box like score that’s quite poignant – well, up until the point that the musical cue gets overused to death, anyway.

After her transition into the tigresa [incidentally, the “La” part of the title seen on the DVD sleeve appears to be entirely the distributor’s addition], she’s still quite a laudable character, taking no shit from the organized crime boss. She refuses to let him use her club as a front for drugs and prostitution, but does partner with him in exchange for his help finding her attacker. Though this just consists of wandering local gyms trying to find someone with the distinctive back scar which was her assailant’s sole distinguishing feature – I’d have expected better from the mob. It’s just a good thing absolutely no-one in these places ever wears a shirt. There’s another bizarre diversion where she meets a gangster, who then goes home to discover his wife in bed with another man. So he drowns her in the bathtub and decapitates her lover, before vanishing from the film entirely.

Yeah, it’s like that: nonsensical in many ways, and obviously cheaply made, with performances all over the place, from the monotone to the hysterical. Yet it’s strangely hypnotic, and you find yourself watching, just to see what will happen next and in what surreal way things will develop. For all its many faults, I can’t say I ever found Tigresa dull. There are GWG films which are so forgettable, I find myself struggling to write 300 words on them. This was certainly not one of those.

Dir: Glauco del Mar
Star: Perla Faith, Johnny H, Cindy Lee, Guillermo Crespo

Amazon Warrior

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“Where’s Lana Clarkson when you need her? Er… Never mind…”

amazon warriorI’ve seen some painfully cheap, poorly made excuses for movies in the post-apocalypse genre in my time, and I was actively braced for another one here. To my pleasant surprise, this didn’t suck. While it certainly delivered on the first half, apparently being made on a budget of spare change off the producer’s bedside table, the film possesses a script into which some work has gone, and decent leading performances, neither being expected. Indeed, this is likely some production values away from being genuinely good, at least in a nostalgic way, harking back to the Argentinian sword ‘n’ sorcery flicks that were churned out for the video market in the mid-eighties.

After the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket [and a bad digital effect], it returns to a tribal state. One of these are the gynocentric Amazons, but their territory is invaded by the marauders, an alliance of tribes under General Steiner (Storti), who perpetually needs to find and takes over new territory, to stop his alliance from splintering. You could read a political subtext into this, although that would likely be giving the script too much credit, I suspect. The only survivor of the slaughter that follows is Tara (Rodgers), who grows up, vowing revenge on Steiner and his crew. We join the vengeance in progress, with Tara now a mercenary who notches her belt for each marauder killed, but has taken time out from her busy revenging to escort two young women from one spot to another, at the request of their father (Sherer). On the way, she meets Clint (Jerman), a like-minded individual, who also had his family killed by Steiner, and so who is on his own personal mission. Or, is he?

It’s this angle which is one of the facets that keeps things interesting, with the storyline taking some unexpected twists and turns, right up to the final scene. Rogers is also effective in a role that could easily have become a collection of cliches, and the supporting performances are appropriate to their tasks. The fight sequences just about pass muster – it helps if you squint at them sideways, rather than giving them your direct attention – and it appears that after civilization has collapsed into anarchy and chaos, what remains will resemble an SCA get-together, albeit with rather more fur bikinis. The audio could also have done with some significant clean-up, not that hearing every word of dialogue is exactly crucial. Still, this comfortably exceeded all expectations, even if those were basically flat-lined going in; it retained my attention and was entertaining throughout. If you can manage your hopes realistically, not anticipating something on a par with the upcoming Mad Max remake, this should do the same for you.

Dir: Dennis Devine
Star: J.J. Rodgers, Jimmy Jerman, Raymond Storti, Bob Sherer

Fair Play

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“Czech out those legs…”

fairplayTeenage sprinter Anna (Bárdos) is on the edge of making the Olympics with the Czech national team, but still needs to meet the qualifying time. She’s being brought up by her mother, Irena (Geislerová), a former tennis prodigy, now reduced to working as a cleaning lady – in part because of the defection for the West of her husband. Irena also secretly transcribes underground documents for a dissident, Marek. Coach Bohdan (Luknár) pushes Anna hard to reach her maximum potential, and gives her “Stromba”, a substance that helps her performance, but screws up her health. She stops taking it, believing it to be an illegal steroid: when her coach finds out, he enlists Irena’s help to inject her daughter surreptitiously, saying it’s the only way Anna will make the squad. Reluctantly, Irena agrees, unwilling to see her daughter lose out in the same way she did. But as the authorities close in on Marek, the two women become pawns in a political game, with their common Olympic dream now used as leverage against them.

This makes an interesting companion piece to Goldengirl, with both films telling a similar story about female runners in the early eighties, whose family and mentors are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve success at the Olympics. Goldengirl unfolded in the lead-up to 1980’s Moscow Games, but subsequent history rendered it obsolete, as America boycotted them. Fair Play shows things from the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the lead-up to the 1984 Los Angeles games – which the Eastern Bloc similarly spurned. The benefit of time allows the film to incorporate this history into an ironic postscript for its narrative and, while less SF-oriented than its American cousin, the attitudes of both heroines, and the approach of their supporting cast, have a surprising amount in common. The main difference here is, the doping regime is state-sanctioned; in Goldengirl, it’s free-market forces driving the “win at any costs” mentality.

The piece makes a pointed connection between Anna and Irena’s situations, both coming under pressure to compromise their personal morality for personal gain – one sporting, the other judicial. It’s this stand which represents the true heroism to be found here, though the script struggles to escape from the obvious clichés of Soviet Bloc culture. The other main weakness is the actual athletics, which never give the impression of anyone moving at more than an energetic jog, while the thread involving Anna’s relationship with a boy doesn’t go anywhere of significance at all. In the final analysis, it’s a worthy enough effort, if rather too earnest to be wholly successful. You can see why it became the official Czech entry for this year’s Academy Awards – and equally as much, why the Academy then decided it wasn’t worthy of making the final nominees.

Dir: Andrea Sedláčková
Star: Judit Bárdos, Roman Luknár, Anna Geislerová, Ondrej Novák

Certain Prey, by John Sandford

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

certainpreyThis tenth novel in Sandford’s popular Lucas Davenport series was my first experience with his work. Usually, I prefer to read a series in order, but this installment can be read just as well out of sequence. Series sleuth Lucas Davenport, a Minneapolis homicide detective (who, by the time of this novel, is actually a deputy police chief) isn’t really the protagonist here; structurally, at least for much of the book, the two pistol-packing female villains are really the co-protagonists, and Davenport the antagonist (albeit one who’s on the side of good). And although I classified it as a mystery, the who-done-it, why and how of the contract killing here isn’t a mystery to the reader; we’re shown the personae, planning, and execution (literally) of the crime at the outset. The element of detection is in seeing how the forces of justice will prove what we already know. And this time, it won’t be easy.

On the plus side, Sandford does a very effective job of creating a really involving, page-turning read, with excellent plotting that throws curves into the story which you often don’t see coming, but which are completely logical outgrowths of the situation and never forced. He hooked me early and hard, to the point where I knew I would finish the book no matter what; and while the adjectives “thriller” and “pulse-pounding” are advertising hype, there genuinely are places with a good deal of suspense and tension here. (Readers familiar with the Twin Cities would probably also say that he does a good job of incorporating their real-life geography into the book; but though I was born in Minneapolis, I wasn’t raised there and have hardly ever been back, so that element was pretty much lost on me.)

His other outstanding feat here is the sheer virtuosity with which he creates professional hit woman Clara Rinker and her employer, millionaire criminal-defense attorney Carmel Loan, who’s hired the former to kill the wife of a fellow lawyer for whom she’s in lust. In keeping with the necessities of a good mystery plot, they’re very worthy opponents for any detective. They’re both smart, cunning, and pretty ruthless (Carmel totally so); Clara’s had years of practice covering her tracks, having started killing for hire when she was 16, while Carmel knows rules of evidence and police procedure from the inside and her wealth and political connections make her almost untouchable.

Obviously, neither of these women are one bit likable as characters (a likable villain is pretty much an oxymoron, anyway). “Don’t worry, I’m just a sociopath. Like you. I’m not a psychopath or anything,” Carmel assures Clara at one point, but her claim to the contrary, she’s both: she not only has a fixed determination to have anything she wants when she wants it, regardless of how much harm she has to do to anybody else in the process, but she derives a warped excitement and enjoyment from inflicting pain and death. Clara doesn’t, as such; for her, killing is just a good-paying job, and some of Carmel’s actions bother even her. But she’s almost (though not quite) without a conscience or normal human empathy, like one of Philip K. Dick’s androids. But both are fully alive, vital, three-dimensional and understandable as characters, and come across as (very flawed) human beings, not just cardboard incarnations of evil –though they are both evil, in their different ways, or capable of doing very evil things. And they’re strong, dominating, formidable characters, who hold your full attention and stay in your memory; like all well-drawn villains, they fascinate, in various ways and at various psychological levels. Sandford also excels at depicting the nuanced, fragile bond that grows between the pair, whose misguided life choices and defective personalities have prevented them from ever knowing real friendship, though there’s a buried part of their psyches that’s starving for it.

Grading just on the strength of his plotting and sharp characterizations of these two women, I’d give Sandford four or five stars here. There are negatives to the book, though, that drag its rating down. I don’t expect villains to be likable; but very few of the characters here are particularly so, including Davenport. Many aren’t drawn in enough depth to be either likable or unlikable, as if the author exhausted his resources on his protagonists. We don’t even get much sense of knowing Davenport from the inside, though Sandford does bring out his phobia of flying in planes, and his liking for escaping job stress by fishing in the North Woods. (Of course, his character is probably developed more in the earlier novels of the series.) He has some unappealing traits, though, including a willingness to cut corners on legal restraints (he was temporarily kicked off the force for brutality some years before). I also don’t think he’s outstanding as a detective –he can be intuitive, and has a good memory for details, but he often doesn’t recognize verbal clues or faces until long after the optimum time for doing so has passed, and he blabs one detail of the investigation to a civilian in a way that even I (with no police training!) recognized as really irresponsible. I got enough entertainment out of the book that I don’t regret reading it, and it earned its stars fairly. But there are other heroes in the genre that I find more congenial than Davenport, and I always prefer action heroines over action villainesses.

Note: There’s a lot of bad language here, including a hefty seasoning of obscenities. There’s no explicit sex, but a number of the characters also have (and demonstrate) coarse sexual attitudes.

Author: John Sandford
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon in all formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.