Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This works rather better as historical fiction than an action novel, and is set in the late 15th century, when the province of Brittany was fighting to remain independent from France. Such high-level political machinations are far above the heads of most inhabitants, who are busy with everyday survival. At the beginning of the book, this includes the heroine, 17-year-old Ismae, who is more concerned about her upcoming, unwanted marriage – more of a sale by her father, to be honest – to a brutal husband. Rescue comes in an unexpected form, as she is whisked away to the Convent of St. Mortain, devoted to one of the pagan gods, absorbed into the Catholic faith as a saint. Mortain’s field is death, and Ismae, who has a natural immunity to poison, is trained in his dark arts. She becomes a tool used by the Mother Superior – albeit for political ends as much as religious ones.

After a couple of training missions, the main thread of the book is her presence at the court of the young Duchess of Brittany, where she is sent as the “cousin” to her adviser, Duval. Quotes used advisedly, since the general assumption is that she’s Duval’s mistress. Know I mentioned “high-level political machinations” in the previous paragraph? Cue these, in spades, as the future of Brittany hinges largely on to whom the Duchess is married. [It was only right at the end that I realized the Duchess had barely turned thirteen, rendering some of the previous events significantly more creepy] There are any number of factions, each with their own agenda, and willing to go to any lengths to make sure they’re achieved; figuring out and negotiating the maze of loyalties and deception is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I read this not long after The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, which depicts events in a similarly chaotic period, just across the English Channel and around the same time. That didn’t have enough action to qualify here, but did get me in the appropriate Middle Ages mindset. It did share a supernatural element, with its heroine being able to affect the weather, for example. Here, Ismae’s main talent is her ability to see the mark of Mortain on those the saint has targeted for death. But this is problematic when it conflicts with the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior, and the main thrust of the heroine’s development is her transition away from an indoctrinated cult-head, as she realizes she might be being manipulated and used, almost as much as in her peasant days.

Part of this is – and you can insert a heavy sigh, complete with eye-rolling here – her blossoming feelings for Duval. It’s clear, virtually from the first time he appears, that he is the Designated Love Interest, and it’s only a matter of time before our hard-nosed assassin will inevitably be making googly eyes at him. It’s certainly the case that, once she and he arrive at the castle, the action largely grinds to a halt, being replaced by much skulking around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. There’s much more suspicion than assassination, outside of one incident at the banquet, where she saves the Duchess from violent death at the hands of a mime – okay, it’s more one of a strolling troupe of players, but I find the idea of a killer mime just too amusing to discard. [Also: while Ismae does wield a crossbow, it’s considerably smaller than the one pictured on the cover!]

I did like the meshing of old and new religious beliefs, and must confess, this certainly didn’t feel like a 550-page tome [one advantage of e-books is their lack of weight!], since I ripped through it in not much more than a week, which is lightning fast by my standards. But the book did suffer from incomplete subplots, such as the psycho fellow novitiate, who is also present in the Duchess’s castle, only to vanish entirely from the story without explanation. Perhaps this is something which will be explained in a future installment. Having paid 99 cents for this on special offer, I guess I can’t complain; but I likely wouldn’t be inclined to pay the $9.99 currently being demanded for the second part of the trilogy.

Author: Robin LaFevers 
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, available through Amazon, both as a printed book and an e-book.

Here’s the trailer. Yep, TIL that books nowadays have trailers…

Dragon Girls

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“…and you thought your school sucked.”

dragon-girlsIf you’re familiar with Jackie Chan’s life story, you’ll know he (along with fellow future start Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) was basically brought up in a Peking Opera school, where he learned martial arts and acrobatics as well as theatrical skills. Discipline there was notoriously strict – the film Painted Faces gives a good idea of what it was like. But that was the sixties. Surely no such abusive educational regime exists nowadays?

Well… This documentary suggests otherwise, though the scale is rather different. For the Shaolin Tagu school that’s the subject here says it has 35,000 staff and pupils on a half-million square metre campus. When you see the opening, the screen filled from side to side and top to bottom with synchronized martial artists, it’s not implausible. However, the reasons why parents send their children to these places haven’t changed a lot. Typically the family is too poor, or the kids are too much of a handful, possibly heading into delinquency, and they believe the discipline will straighten them out.

The film focuses on some of the girls, some as young as nine, enrolled in the school, including one who had run away in the middle of the second year, and returned to her family. As well as the pupils, there are interviews with the coaches, the head of the school (“A community’s backbone is shaped by rules,” he says. “In here, those rules are very strict.”) and the chief monk at the nearby Shaolin monastery, who offers a different (rather more laid-back!) perspective on what martial arts are about. There isn’t much in the way of narrative here. While there are mentions of a tournament, I didn’t realize it had taken place, until one of the participants was reporting to her disappointed father that she had failed to win first place. Some obvious questions are unanswered too, such as who is paying for this? Are these places state-sponsored?

Although the presence of the documentary crew may have reined in the harsher side of life at the school, the girls have no problem detailing the corporal punishment dished out, it seems at will, by the teachers, or the insect-contaminated food. There’s one scene where the girls compare scars and try to one-up each other, which plays disturbingly like a teen version of the similar sequence in Jaws. But it’s about the only one which sticks in the mind or goes any significant difference between the fairly obvious. I get the feeling we in the West are supposed to look on this disapprovingly, but there isn’t enough digging behind the facade to justify it. For you could likely make something not dissimilar about any high-pressure training environment here – say, for gymnastics. The main difference would probably be that, here, parents have other options…

Dir: Inigo Westmeier
Star: Xin Chenxi, Chen Xi, Guan Luolan, Yang Ziyu
a.k.a. Drachen Mädchen

Scherzo Diabolico

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“Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off teenager.”

scherzo-diabolicoIf you go in with expectations based on the poster, you are going to get two-thirds of the way into this and wonder if there was some mix-up. It’s only as the last act unfolds that the image makes sense – though it’s still somewhat of a misdirection. The main central character is actually Aram (Barreiro), a middle manager accountant stuck in a dull job, and an even less fulfilling marriage and family. He has a plan to break the monotony, which involves kidnapping a teenage girl, Anie (Vell), and Aram is plotting the crime with his trademark attention to detail.

At first, it all appears that everything has gone perfectly to plan, and Aram’s life changes for the better in a range of ways. The victim is released and returned to her family, alive if hardly undamaged by the psychological trauma of her ordeal, and Aram enjoys the fruits of his efforts. That includes a promotion at work, and an affair with a young woman in the office. It appears to have been the perfect crime. Except, there was one tiny flaw, which opens the door for Anie to take vengeance for what she went through. While the monster which Aram created, may still look like a young, innocent girl, he’s going to find out, her heart is now in a very dark place indeed.

My two main issues with the film were the pacing and a tendency to keep information back from the viewer that should have been revealed. With regard to the latter, for example, there’s one key fact about the identity of his victim which is withheld, for no particularly necessary reason. I’m also unclear on a couple of story points: the length of Anie’s abduction, and why she goes after her first two victims, on discovering who was responsible, rather than directly for Aram. It does also grind to a halt in the middle, with the actual kidnapping and its immediately aftermath, which is a bit of a shame, since the first half does a good job of setting up the situation, and the second half provides an solidly chilling payoff. Not least the final shot, which suggests Aram won’t be the end of the matter…

Bogliano makes particularly good use of classical piano music, which also plays a key role in the plot in a couple of ways – the non-spoiler one is Aram’s childhood ambitions being dashed by his stubby little fingers. The tinkly tunes forming a stark counterpoint to the callous and chilling brutality as it unfolds. Both leads give solid performances too, with Vell certainly having the bigger character arc. There’s enough potential here to leave me interested in tracking down the director’s other efforts, but the problems noted above stop this from being more than an interestingly flawed effort. The less you know going in, likely the better for the experience.

Dir: Adrián García Bogliano
Star: Francisco Barreiro, Daniela Soto Vell, Milena Pezz, Jorge Molina

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

Julia X

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“Battle of the sexes.”

juliaxA date appears to go badly wrong for Julia (Azlynn), when her companion (Sorbo) turns out to be a serial-killer who has been using Internet dating sites to find the young women he targets. However, it turns out the tables are eventually turned, for Julia and her sister Jessica (Willis) are every bit as monstrous, who have been luring in and killing men, as a result of the abuse they both suffered at the hands of their father. But Jessica is a bit fed up of taking a back seat to her big sis, and wanders across the street to kidnap a victim of her own (Moore). But Julia’s captive is not exactly prepared to give up his liberty without a fight.

Nice bit of casting against type for Sorbo, whom we’re used to seeing in more heroic roles. He’s quite effective in a Patrick Bateman-esque way (American Psycho, if you’d forgotten), and this is certainly an equal opportunity film, in terms of the copious violence inflicted both on and by women. The last third is not much more than the two leads battering each other forcefully through the entire house, with extreme and escalating aggression. It’s the kind of thing which I should love. So why does it all feel relatively unaffecting and forced?

It may be because the scenario unfolding requires almost industrial strength idiocy from the main characters. Sorbo’s killer, for example, is so sloppily incompetent, it’s a wonder he managed to pull off his first murder without accidentally killing himself. The sisters aren’t much better, and we’re not given much of a reason to root for Julia and Jessica either. I get the feeling the reveal of them being psychos as well is supposed to “matter”, but it has next to no impact at all. The backstory offered for the sisters is pretty trite and cliched too; maybe it would have been better off if they’d begun with that, and we’d been brought along with the siblings on their journey, to the point where murder apparently started to make sense.

What does work, fortunately, is the action, which is well-staged and crunchy. The film doesn’t linger on the pain with sadistic glee, as it could; this is wise, since if the makers did, some scenes would likely be hard to watch. Instead, there’s an almost Looney Tunes element to the mayhem, particularly in the way the protagonists are able to take a pounding, and bounce back with an even more enhanced vengeance, like a human version of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. On the whole, I’d not have minded at all to see this deliberately outrageous aspect played up, highlighted particularly by a beautifully ironic use of The Carpenters’ soft-pop anthem, Close To You. For the film arguably doesn’t do enough with its script or characters to make the viewer interested in taking them seriously.

Dir: P.J. Pettiette
Star: Valerie Azlynn, Kevin Sorbo, Alicia Leigh Willis, Joel David Moore

Win the audiobook version of ‘The Smoking Gun Sisterhood’!

Your attention please. Do you:

  • Like audiobooks?
  • Like action heroines?
  • Like free stuff?

We’ve got you covered. For we have 10 copies to give away of the audiobook version of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood, by Thad Brown. This collection of short stories received our Seal of Approval, and we heartily endorse the author’s description of the book as containing “Admiring and respectful celebrations of gun-packing women as kick-butt heroines, for readers of both genders who appreciate heroines of this type.” Check out further reviews on the Amazon page, or here’s the publisher’s blurb, which should whet your appetite even further!

Ten women, each one between a rock that might be her tombstone and a hard place that it may take a gun to blast her way out of. Author Thad Brown’s collection of hard bitten, bullet paced fiction centered on women embroiled in violence and danger takes pulp to a whole new level. Being a woman often means fighting against all odds. And the women in Brown’s tales are charter members of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood. This is a fantastic, double-barrelled collection from author Thad Brown and Pro Se Productions.

At the time, it was a self-published work, but has since become available on Amazon – and now, as an audio book. Which is where we come in, since in conjunction with the narrator, Aisling Gray, we are giving away 10 copies of the audio version of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood through audible.com. Note: winners do not need to have an audible account, though there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want one; I believe iTunes and other downloads work.

To win, all you have to do is get social with us.

  1. Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.
  2. Then send us a DM (Twitter) or a message (Facebook) with your email address.
  3. Er, that’s it.

First 10 people to do so will be put on Santa’s nice list, and will receive their copy in time for Christmas listening. This contest will close when all 10 copies have been given away; we’ll let you know when that is. So if you are reading this – act now, while stocks last… Ho-ho-ho! Heavily armed season’s greetings to one and all!

Morgan

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Hannah goes Haywire.”

I watched this twice: once on an airplane flight from London, and once after I returned, and I think I preferred the second viewing. For the ending here, if not perhaps what you’d call a “twist”, does provide a piece of information about the lead character, that will change the way you watch her performance in subsequent viewings. It’s something I appreciate, and also goes a long way to explain what would otherwise potentially be flaws in the plot. Said character is Lee Weathers (Mara), a “risk-management consultant” for a tech company, who is sent to a remote outpost, literally buried in the heart of the countryside.

Its inhabitants have spent more than five years working on developing an artificial life-form; after multiple failed attempts, their current creation, Morgan (Taylor-Joy) had appeared to be doing better. Initially, crafted with talents such as accelerated growth, she (or, as Lee stresses, “it”) is now developing unexpected talents such as precognition. However, a violent streak is also making itself known, culminating in Morgan stabbing one of the researchers in the eye. This is where Weathers comes in, seeking to assess the viability of the project, as well as whether it should continue or not. And if not? Well, as the one-eyed researcher, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, bluntly tells her, “You’re a goddamn assassin.” But Morgan’s creators won’t take that lying down; nor will Morgan her/itself.

Mara captures just the right degree of cold, passionless disinterest, and is helped out by a very solid supporting cast. This includes Leigh as well as Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti and even action heroine icon, Michelle Yeoh, albeit in a non-action role, playing the head of the project. After the opening scene, depicting the eye-stabbing from the POV of the complex’s security cameras, we already know everything is going to kick off, it’s just a matter of when. Given this, the first half could be considered too slow; we really don’t need to be introduced to everyone, because what matters is the Weathers-Morgan dynamic, perhaps with a side of the latter’s closest “relative”, Dr. Menser (Leslie, not without her own action cred, having played Ygritte in Game of Thrones – like GoT, this movie was filmed in Northern Ireland).

The arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Giamatti), the man in charge of carrying out Morgan’s psych evaluation, signals the start of this inevitable escalation of hostilities, and the pace certainly kicks up from that point forward. It’s this aspect which separates it in tone from the similarly-themed Splice, a more horror-oriented story, also about an artificial life-form gone awry. I note the stunt personnel here included Zara Phythian, a British action actress, whose star appears to be on the rise. Despite the loaded cast – it helps having Ridley Scott as a producer! – this was relatively cheap to make, at $8 million, and was somewhat unjustly overlooked on its cinema release. Even if it probably does take two viewings to appreciate it.

Dir: Luke Scott
Star: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie

Angel of Reckoning

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“Near-dead reckoning”

angel-of-reckoningReturning from a stint in the military, Rachel Baldwin (Kabasinski) is looking forward to reuniting and reconnecting with her family. But any hope of happiness is rudely disrupted when her niece slits her wrists in the bathtub. After the funeral, Rachel finds her late relative’s phone and realizes the reason for the suicide was a sex tape she’d made with her boyfriend (Wieczorek), which he had traded to a drug dealer for cocaine, and then ended up on the Internet, to her fatal shame. A thoroughly unimpressed Rachel decides to take her army skills and apply them to the sleazy individuals responsible, working her way up the ladder to Beverly (Hamblin), the woman at the top of the scumball chain of command.

This kind of thing certainly can work well: Sweet Karma is probably the best example of the genre immediately to come to mind. However, this is just too cheap a production for it to be any more than occasionally successful. The poster (right) promises a level of quality that the actual movie rarely if ever matches, in a way that significantly distracts from proceedings. For example, check out the supposed “cinema,” occupied entirely (and inexplicably!) by goths. The performances, in particular, are all over the place in terms of quality, often a real issue with low-budget film-making. The decent ones, such as that of Detective Trufont (Frederick Williams),  the cop chasing down the source of the ever-increasing body count, make the bad ones – by which I mean the rest of the heroine’s family – all the more noticeable.

The other main area of deficiency is the plot. It lurches from incident to incident rather than flowing, and there’s no sense of escalation as Rachel moves through the criminal underworld. I did enjoy the supporting role of former adult actress Jasmin St. Claire as an arms dealer – the makers certainly have to be given credit for casting against type there! But the only memorable action sequence was the one which took place in a shoot at a porn studio, to which our heroine had obtained an invitation to perform. The use of a strobe and UV lighting there was undeniably effective, if arguably somewhat contrived and gimmicky, and also put over her ruthless streak well.

Unfortunately, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and the other sequences are forgettable. It’s perhaps somewhat unfair to judge what’s clearly a small budget film, by comparing it against movies with far greater resources. However, when you’re lined up on the shelf in Wal-mart or wherever, there’s no discount given for limited resources. Although the film’s heart is in the right place, it simply falls short of delivering on its aims and goals. That said, it looks like the director’s studio, Killer Wolf Films, has produced some other GWG flicks; this showed enough promise, I wouldn’t be averse to checking out their current production, Hellcat’s Revenge, when it appears.

Dir: Len Kabasinski
Star: Jessica Kabasinski, Donna Hamblin, Lisa Neeld, Hunter Wieczorek

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”