Scorpion’s Revenge

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Scorpion’s Revenge is an understandable, if not really helpful, retitling of a film called Sasori in USA; as this suggests, it attempts to add an exotic flavour by setting things in an uncivilised and/or dangerous locale. Foreigners are, after all, inherently evil, and do far worse things to our women than we ever would. This isn’t new: many of Roger Corman’s 1970’s WiP movies were shot in the Philippines, albeit partly for cost reasons.

During its first half, Revenge is largely an identikit job, wheeling virtually every staple of the genre into play. Heroine Nami Matsushima (Yohko Saito) is sent to prison for killing her boyfriend with a car-bomb. Of course, she’s innocent (they always are), and soon finds herself facing the horrors of jail life. These include vicious guards, a predatory lesbian who resembles Jamie Lee Curtis, her innocent friend in the cell next door, and frequent showers. All of these are common WiP ingredients – except, obviously, the need for someone to look like Ms. Curtis. Even the Bible-quoting warden comes from Reform School Girls, where the role was memorably played by Sybil Danning, herself a graduate of the classic Chained Heat. But this incestuous plagiarism is okay: you always know where you are with a WiP film.

Revenge romps through this at high speed in a mix of English and Japanese, until it all gets too much for our heroine to bear. She escapes with her friend, Yuko – who turns out to be blind, though it took me half-an-hour to realise this. This is a great pity, since the film then completely loses its way: while the prison genre offers plenty of scope for entertainment, the wandering-aimlessly-round-a-desert genre is trickier and has been largely avoided (Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout being the obvious exception).

They eventually reach familiar ground, and that’s more than can be said for the movie, which spirals spectacularly down from this point. Nami discovers the truth about her boyfriend’s death, Yuko goes out for revenge against those responsible for her incarceration, and the resulting plot twists are so ludicrous and badly executed, they kill the film dead. The absurd climax does at least explain half the title, but the contrast to the opening 40 minutes suggests some people are better off cannibalising other movies.

Dir: Daisuke Gotoh
Star: Yohko Saito, Shizuka Ochi, Kristin Norton, Tetta Sugimoto

The Demolitionist

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KNB are one of the best-known effects studios, having worked on movies such as Evil Dead 2 and From Dusk Till Dawn. With their background, one would have hoped they might have come up with a story that’s more than a shameless Robocop ripoff, but for a microbudget work (budget was only $1m, if I recall, and it was shot in 21 days), it’s not so bad. The cast are enthusiastic, and the film does a good job of capturing the desired comic-book style.

Eggert plays Alyssa, a cop killed in the line of duty by Mad Dog (Grieco), who is then resurrected by Dr. Crowley (Abbott – his second appearance in this “cape fear” section!) as a bio-engineered crimefighter who years for her former life, but is obsessed with tracking down her murderers. Like I said: Robocop ripoff, right down to the satirical news-breaks, with references to ‘President Bono’. She even “dreams”, though the visions of hell that we see are, frankly, embarrassingly bad, and the middle act in general is sluggishly-paced.

This is the kind of role for which Grieco was made – scenery-chewing to the max, although a certain amount of angst is understandable after your brother gets electrocuted via a puddle of urine (and, say what you like, that’s certainly an imaginative demise). Eggert is fine, and indeed shows more emotion than Abbott, who also tends to mumble his lines. Looks like a few horror favours were called in for the supporting cast: beside FX-god Savini, Heather Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street) plays a journalist, and Bruce Campbell has an uncredited cameo. A good chunk of the bad guys are also played by KNB employees, which keeps the wages bill down, I guess.

As you’d expect from a movie directed by the K in “KNB”, the physical effects are solid; I was particularly impressed with the blood squibs which explode as pink powder in a wildly unrealistic, yet very cool-looking, way. The heroine’s costume, gadgets and bike are also nifty, and the action is by no means badly-staged – though one suspects a fair bit of doubling for Eggert, despite her swinging a staff decently enough. It’s a shame resources ran out before they could film the climatic sword-fight between her and evil henchmen Savini.

Largely, however, the lack of money and time don’t destroy the picture – the main black mark against it is the severe lack of originality, which isn’t down to financing. Making a low-rent version of what is widely regarded as a classic, is hardly pushing the boat out artistically, and any comparisons will likely be to the detriment of The Demolitionist. Rather than a nice idea, poorly executed, this is a poor idea, saved by solid execution.

Dir: Robert Kurtzman
Star: Nicole Eggert, Richard Grieco, Bruce Abbott, Tom Savini

Andy Sidaris: A man, a plan, a genre

My wife Arlene uses all of these fancy words like “motivation” and “story”. Where the fuck did you learn those words? I couldn’t spell “story” if you spotted me the “s” and the “t”, for chrissakes.Andy Sidaris

You have to give Andy Sidaris a lot of respect. For twenty years or so, he has been living outside the Hollywood studio system, happily putting out his own style of movies. You don’t do that without tapping into something popular, and Sidaris’ formula is simple: Bullets, Bombs and Babes. The DVDs even have symbols by the chapter stops to indicate content in these three areas.

The product that results usually involves a number of Playboy playmates in a variety of exotic (yet not too expensive) locations e.g. Las Vegas, chasing the bad guys with a selection of weaponry and gadgets. Throw in some gratuitous but inoffensive nudity, a little action (not overly bloody!) and a curious, almost total, lack of profanity. Wrap in a suitably enticing sleeve, release to video, and wait for the profits to arrive. So obvious, you wonder why no-one else thought of it first.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Sidaris gravitated towards the action genre, having for many years been a TV sports producer, winning seven Emmys in the process. He also was responsible for the football scenes in M.A.S.H., though director Robertn Altman stiffed him out of credit for that, to Sidaris’s lasting disdain; more than 30 years later, he said of Altman, “If you call up central casting and say “send me a prick over,” he shows up.”

Yet his career got off to a slow start, more than a decade passing between his directorial debut and his third feature, Malibu Express, which is probably the first “true” Sidaris movie in terms of style and content. This was a happy time for the low-budget film-maker, as the growth of video meant an enormous demand for product. And Andy, along with his wife Arlene, and occasionally son Christian too, was in a great position to supply that need. Their small but well-crafted action adventure pics might not out-rent the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but they’d likely outlast it on the shelves.

In the third millennium, financing new movies has become a little harder, but the Sidaris catalog has found a new lease of life on DVD. They put a lot of major studios to shame in terms of extras, especially given the low retail price – commentaries (albeit with Sidaris occasionally drooling over his actresses a bit too much), featurettes, trailers and the “Andy Sidaris Film School” where you learn how to stage car-chases, etc. How he gets all those Playmates to star in his movies remains a trade secret. :-)

Since I started writing this, Andy Sidaris passed away from throat cancer in March 2007, without getting to make Battlezone Hawaii – the script was written, centred on the theft of a Faberge egg, but it never went into production. Having now seen all his “bullets, bombs and babes” flicks, there are none which merit a seal of approval. A few are good; others are actually pretty bad. But they have a consistency of tone and content which is somehow re-assuring. You know, more or less, exactly what you’re going to get, and they always deliver.

To quote Arlene, “The Sidaris dynasty is built on the theory that every four years there’s a college freshman in a frat house on a Friday night who wants to see a Sidaris movie.” And with their rolling, but always photogenic, cast of dolls and hunks, not to mention plots that never tax the brain, Andy Sidaris makes near-perfect movies for that situation. Crack open the beer, order the pizza, switch off all conscious thought and be entertained..

I feel like when there’s nudity required, it’s there. Certainly some of it is gratuitous, I’m not going to lie to you, but hey, that’s what we’re here for. In the play ’42nd Street’, where he says “You go on that stage an unknown, you come off that stage a star,” I say “You step into that hot tub an unknown, you step out that hot tub a star.”Andy Sidaris

  • Stacey

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    While this wasn’t Sidaris’s first feature – he’d done The Racing Scene, with James Garner in 1967 – this was likely the prototype of the BB&B (Blood, Bullets & Babes) flicks that would become his trademark. If all the elements do not quite mesh in the way they eventually would, they are all present, mostly in the shape of Anne Randall, a former Playboy playmate who plays private investigator Stacey, and looks a bit like Heather Graham.

    The story bears more than a slight resemblance to Malibu Express (below), except with the sexes swapped out. Here, the PI is a she, called in by a rich invalid to investigate the shenanigans surrounding her extended family, and soon discovers an employee is banging one relative and blackmailing her gay husband, among other unpleasantness. He soon turns up dead, and there’s no shortage of suspects. Stacey finds the camera set-up he used to get the blackmail material, and retrieves a couple of rolls of undeveloped film [Yeah…that pretty much dates the film, right there!]. However, when the bullets start to fly in her direction, she realizes that someone wants to prevent the prints from being seen, and is prepared to stop at nothing towards this end.

    Stacey is actually pretty cool: perhaps more so than some of Sidaris’s later heroines, the script makes it clear that she’s both smart abd capable of taking care of herself, with or without a gun. She also drives, very fast, something showcased in the final chase, pitting a race-car against a helicopter – it’s undoubtedly contrived, but the speeds on view are undeniably impressive. If they’d done a movie version of Honey West, this might have been kinda like it, though Stacey does take her top off with rather more frequency than Ann Francis would ever do.

    That’s perhaps the result of this being a co-production between Sidaris’s production company and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, each putting up half of the $75,000 cost. The production values are good, and there’s some surprisingly enthusiastic blood-squibbing going on. If some elements appear to have strayed in from Agatha Christie, and the supporting cast are entirely forgettable, there should be enough going on to keep the viewer interested, and I’ve seen an awful lot worse come out of the 70’s drive-in market.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Anne Randall, Alan Landers, James Westmoreland, Anitra Ford

  • Malibu Express

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    Female action fans would be well advised to give this a wide berth. Actually, so should everyone else, unless they’re fans of crass sexism, extremely clunky exposition and hideous country & western. Cody Abilene (Hinton) is a PI hired by Countess Luciana (Danning) to look into the export of illegal computer technology to the Russians, centred on the home of Lady Lillian Chamberlain. Who is responsible? Oversexed chauffeur Shane? Daughters Lisa and Anita? Or the maid, Marion? [groan…]

    Luciana and police Detective Beverly MacFee (Sutton) are the prototypes for later Sidaris action heroines, but otherwise this is crude soft-porn with few redeeming features. Were impressed with Danning’s amazing costumes though; never realised you could do so much with a roll of coloured crepe paper. The hero starts off driving a DeLorean, which rapidly goes in for repair, and is replaced by a series of less-expensive junkers which the production can afford to abuse. The over-frequent voiceovers that add nothing to the plot. The sub-plot involving a family who’d have been thrown off the Dukes of Hazzard for being too stereotypical. Need I go on?

    With all the bed-hopping, this isn’t a film that has dated well – two decades of AIDS see to that. But it’s hard to imagine an era in which this could ever have seemed like passable entertainment. The occasional spurts of genuine imagination (such as the resolution, which I have to admit we didn’t see coming) aren’t nearly enough to justify the 101-minute running time. I suspect that a film concentrating on Luciana would have had much more potential – albeit at the cost of several more rolls of crepe.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Darby Hinton, Sybil Danning, Brett Baxter Clark, Lori Sutton

  • Hard Ticket to Hawaii

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    Also known as Hard Titties in Hawaii – at least in this house – it’s a big step forward as far as the evolution of Sidaris’ work goes. After the flailing around that was Malibu Express, he’s now firmly settled on Hawaii as a location, and jiggly action/adventure as the genre. However, he still unfortunately seems to want to cram lame comedy in there, such as clunky references to his previous films, while many of the actors appear not to have been chosen for their thespian ability – to their credit, Speir and Carlton aren’t particularly the worst offenders.

    They play, respectively, a local agent and a former agent now embedded in a new identity, courtesy of witness protection, who stumble across two packets of diamonds belonging to drug dealers. With the help of a couple of colleagues, including the brother of Cody Abilene from Malibu Express (Cody has apparently gone off to learn acting – which certainly explains his previous “performance”), they have to destroy the crime syndicate, though I’m pretty sure you can fill in the rest of the plot yourself. Not least because of the wildly gratuitous “let’s take our tops off!” sequences, such as the relaxing brainstorming session, which naturally takes place in a jacuzzi. [Carlton doesn’t even bother to get anything above her belly-button wet.]

    The great majority of this film is actually a lot less fun than it sounds, since too many of the earlier scenes are pointless padding, despite blatantly thieving one of the best lines from Aliens. Even the nudity is not particularly well done, and the action is limited since the sum total of federal manpower is apparently “four” – I blame budget cutbacks. Then you reach a final 15 minutes where razor-edged frisbees, a villain who proves harder to kill than Jason Vorhees, explosive-tipped crossbows, and a snake contaminated with stuff from cancer-infected lab rats (no, really!) all suddenly play their part. This turns the last reel into berserk excess that’s gory by Sidaris’ standards, but undeniably and endearingly loopy. It’s just a shame that you have to sit through 75 pretty dull minutes in order to find this madly imaginative climax.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Ronn Moss, Rodrigo Obregon

  • Picasso Trigger

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    Salazar (Aprea) is a famously devious assassin who gets shot by a sniper just after he donates a painting (of the emblematic ‘Picasso triggerfish’) to a Parisian art gallery. This sparks a series of lethal attacks on undercover federal spy teams who are Salazar’s enemies. But are the various bad-guys, who use all manner of tricks to eliminate government agents, all working for a criminal mastermind?

    Sidaris makes amusing action films by casting Playboy pinups and hunky TV actors, and crafts low-budget Bond style thrills in exotic locations. There’s not much point in expecting greatness from these stereotyped heroes and villains, as the quintessential Sidaris formula simply requires some beautiful women to strip at regular intervals, a number of offbeat stunts and violent explosions, occasional bouts of kung fu, and frequent travel scenes in small planes, flashy boats and fast cars. On these terms, Picasso Trigger is a splendidly uncomplicated production showcasing several enjoyably ridiculous gadgets: a boomerang grenade, a radio-controlled toy car bomb, and a missile launcher disguised as a crutch!

    If what you want is a speedboat chase in which the hero cannot shoot straight, lots of busty babes in bikinis (or less) carrying enough weaponry to fight a small war, crooks guilty of everything from drug-smuggling to snuff movies and white slavery, and a scattering of throwaway one-liners, Picasso Trigger fits the bill, perfectly.

    Jeff Young
    Originally published in Video Vista
    www.videovista.net

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Steve Bond, John Aprea

  • Savage Beach

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    This one doesn’t really get going until the second half, when the search for a lost hoard of Japanese wartime gold, looted from the Philippines, leads to a remote island. There are CIA agents, revolutionaries, a left-behind Japanese soldier and, of course, our lovely heroines Dona and Taryn (Speir and Carlton) who end up there after their plane crashes in a storm. Or rather, “storm” – you can get a cheap laugh by seeing the bright blue skies as they land in the middle of a clearly hose-supplied downpour. Sidaris probably felt the need to justify their otherwise implausible strip-tease shortly after departure. Or do FAA regulation stipulate pilots must remove their tops in emergencies? Two take-offs for the price of one…

    Such clunky exploitation is disappointing, but the back and forth round the island is fun, though note how our heroines’ carefully-applied camouflage paint mysteriously vanishes minutes later. Not that it impairs their concealment abilities, given the brilliant white shirts they wear. Kudos to Teri Weigel as the rebel who spouts rhetoric before, during and after undressing, giving the lie to the myth that Playboy centerfolds can’t talk and walk simultaneously. The rest of the cast, however, seem to have problems in this department, though Speir acquits herself creditably.

    There does seem to be rather more blood here than usual, with some enthusiastic squibbing. However, the characters show a low level of intelligence that is, unfortunately, necessary to the plot. While I’m happy to forgive economies of scale – and, really, the film looks pretty good for the budget – it’s harder to accept flaws in the script that would have cost Sidaris nothing to fix.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, Rodrigo Obregon, Michael Mikasa

  • Guns

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    Two federal agents (Speir and Vasquez) are hot on the trail of South American gangster Degas (Estrada), after one of their friends is shot during one of his hits – but perhaps that’s really what he wants? Zipping around from Hawaii to Arizona to Las Vegas, this was the first Sidaris movie I saw, and was probably better than I expected. While obviously not shot on an unlimited budget, most of the deficiencies are made up for in energy and a host of interesting characters.

    Those on the wrong side of the law come off particularly well: Estrada is suitably nasty, and his sidekick of few words is an early role for Danny Trejo. Add a pair of transvestite assassins, and Devin DeVasquez as Degas’ murderous squeeze, and the heroines seem kinda bland in comparison, despite good support from Chuck McCann and Phyllis Davis, making an impression in small roles. Cynthia Brimhall is perhaps the best of the cover starlets, though I could certainly have done without her lounge singer turn. Speir still seems to be finding her feet, while Vasquez merely looks pouty.

    It’s the action sequences which really show up the paucity of the production. Helicopters chasing motorbikes is all very well, but Sidaris might have been better off reining in his ambition, to something more in keeping with his pocket. The smaller-scale stuff works better, such as a nice double-hit involving a computer screen and a radio-controlled boat – they were supposed to return the computer and get their money back, but couldn’t get the blood out of the keyboard…

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Donna Speir, Erik Estrada, Roberta Vasquez, Bruce Penhall

  • Do Or Die

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    In a filmography not exactly noted for thought-out plots, this maybe counts as one of the thinnest. Donna (Speir) and Nicole (Vasquez) are targeted by death for Kane (Morita) for their interference in his illegal business ventures. But rather than simply bumping them off, as any sane criminal mastermind would do, he informs them of his intentions to send six separate pairs of assassins after them, beginning the next morning. Our pair of federal lovelies head out of Hawaii, little knowing that a tracker has been placed on them, allowing Kane’s to follow them, while their master sits in his apartment and follows the progress of his “game” on a computer display resembling a bad TRS-80 game [younger readers can Google “TRS-80” if they need specifics], as they proceed from Las Vegas to Louisiana, with a motley crew of associated agents in tow, including infamous Meyer model, Pandora Peaks. No prizes for guessing her role.

    There seems to be an awful lot more sex than violence here; the action sequences are not exactly thrilling, and the assassins are, almost without exception, entirely incompetent, so pose little or no threat. Even the boss level ninjas that represent the final obstacle are easily fooled into hanging around inside a hut long enough to be blown-up. The structure is obvious: the ladies are attacked, fend off their assassins with some semi-nifty piece of technology, then there’s the required love-making scene, showcasing generally artificial attributes. Rinse. Repeat. Six times. It’s kinda amusing to see Morita playing a bad guy, not least because his massaging Oriental sidekickess is a good four inches taller than him, as well as about forty years younger.

    Brimhall gets to do another musical number, which is startlingly inappropriate in just about every way, though I confess I did find myself humming along when it was replayed over the end credits. However, I also found myself seriously dozing off during the early stages, and little of what transpired subsequently proved sufficient to retain my interest.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Donna Speir, Roberta Vasquez, Pat Morita, Erik Estrada

  • Hard Hunted

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    It’s very easy to mock a film, when the lesbian necking starts before the meaningful dialogue, and is immediately followed by a musical number where Cynthia Brimhall channels the spirit of Jimmy Buffett. Yet the endearing loopiness on display here did a better job of keeping my interest throughout than many movies made with far larger budgets. The plot centers on a jade Buddha, containing a nuclear trigger, which starts off in the hands of Kane (Moore), only for it to be swiped by an undercover agent: she is gunned down, but passes it to Donna (Speir), who has to try and keep it out of Kane’s clutches. However, an unfortunate bout of amnesia leaves her partner Nicole (Vazquez) and the other agents trying to find her first.

    This is the usual mix of decent production values [if too much footage of aircraft flying], dumb plotting and breasts; the preferred method of communication is radio host Ava Cadell – who occasionally does her show topless from the hot tub. Just don’t drop the microphone. It’s harmlessly entertaining nonsense, and even has some local interest for us here in Arizona, with sequences shot in Phoenix and up the road in Sedona, though the geography on view is a little flakey. We particularly enjoyed Kane’s incompetent henchmen, Wiley and Coyote – as they helpfully point out, “Those are codenames” – with their Acme brand hovercraft. While it’s clear the film doesn’t take itself seriously (the intelligence community is not, presumably, at it like knives on an almost permanent basis), more of this kind of genuine humour would be welcome, letting you laugh with the film rather than simply taking the mickey.

    You do get the feeling that Sidaris could make this kind of thing in his sleep: there’s nothing remotely innovative or challenging to be found here. Yet for what it is, this is slickly-made, with more ambition than usually found in the genre. Er, at least as long as the genre is that narrow subset of movies where horizontal action is of equal importance to any other kind – if you know what I mean, and I think you do…

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, R.J. Moore, Rodrigo Obregon

  • Fit To Kill

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    Hang on, two movies ago, criminal mastermind Kane was Japanese – now, he’s the son of a Nazi officer who went on the run after the war with a diamond stolen from the Russians? I know I’m watching these all of our order, but still… They even refer to a pendant with a tracking device in it, given to the Japanese version of Kane, even though Moore now appears to be channeling Julian Sands, not Pat Morita. I’m so confused. Still, logic, continuity and coherence are not really the point here, are they?

    This centres on said diamond, which a Chinese businessman plans to return to the Russians. When the jewel is stolen during a ceremonial party, Kane’s presence makes him the obvious suspect, not least because he has hired infamous assassin Blu Steele (Strain), turning her to his side after her attempt to kill him is foiled by a bulletproof vest. However, is everything what it seems? It’s up to Donna and Nicole (Speir + Vasquez), and their friends, to solve the puzzle, while dodging remote-controlled attempts to kill them (including a particularly-dumb pair of assassins known as Evel and Knievel), pausing only for changes of costumes, hot-tubs and the occasional spot of soft-core love-making. In other words, business as usual for a Sidaris film.

    There’s a cheerful innocence to much of the nudity here, which harkens back to the 60’s, e.g. the radio station receptionist who has a hot tub as her desk, in which she sits topless. I actually prefer this approach to the more “intimate” scenes, and the relatively intricate plot also helps make this aspect a cut above [Kane and Donna end up having to work together after both are captured, which marks the first time I’ve genuinely been surprised by a Sidaris storyline development]. However, it does flag in the middle, and the obsession with remote-controlled models is not one I personally share, though overall, this still remains one of the better productions, with Strain fitting in perfectly as a villainess.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, R.J. Moore, Julie Strain

  • Enemy Gold

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    While containing many of the same elements as usual e.g. boobs and bombs, this does at least throw in a new angle, in the shape of some Confederate gold buried in the woods since the Civil War – I can only presume Sidaris must have befriended a Civil War re-enactment battalion. Out enjoying a bit of off-road action, amusingly-named federal agent Becky Midnite (Simpson) and her two co-workers stumble across a diary written by one of the soldiers transporting the gold. However, their plans to search for the treasure are disrupted by efforts to kill them, courtesy of mob boss Santiago. He is upset after they shut down his operation that involved shipping drugs in hollowed-out watermelons. Fed up with the ineptness of his minions, he hires even more amusingly-named assassin Jewel Panther (Strain) to carry out what they have failed to do.

    There’s a loopy insanity to elements of this that are kinda endearing, such as with Strain’s bizarre topless sword routine, which comes out of absolutely nowhere, or her costume when she meets a couple of park rangers, which is not your usual hiker’s attire, shall we say. No-one but Strain could probably pull that off, and she’s fun to watch as usual. However, after a prelude which explains the gold, the first half abandons it entirely, and goes off in a totally different (and not very interesting) direction, involving the raid which get Midnite and her squad suspended, amid political shenanigans and an agent who’s secretly working for Santiago. The final showdown between the various parties concerned is, quite possibly, the worst ever committed to celluloid, even allowing for the fact that Santiago is apparently a “hands on” criminal overlord, who believes that if you want a job done well, you should do it yourself.

    The action around the forest is well-staged, with a decent vehicle chase whose danger is enhanced by the lack of helmets worn by the participants, and you’ve got to love the crossbow whose bolts explode three seconds after embedding in the target. The sole purpose of this delay seems to be in order for the target to get a “Wile E. Coyote” moment of horrified realization before exploding. Hey, I laughed…

    Dir: Drew Sidaris
    Star: Suzi Simpson, Bruce Penhall, Tai Collins, Julie Strain

  • The Dallas Connection

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    Among Sidaris fans, I imagine arguments over whether this one counts, much like the Never Say Never Again debate among 007 lovers. For this was directed not by Andy, but son Drew; Dad and Mom were merely executive producers. However, the content is much the same, though (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) Drew lacks the subtle touch of Sidaris Sr. Case in point: the very first shot is of the Eiffel Tower, establishing that this is Paris. However, the point is then rammed home with footage of the Arc De Triomphe, Place de la Concorde and Notre Dame. Similarly before the ‘South African’ scenes; we get so much wildlife footage, it feels more like the Discovery Channel.

    The story, also by the director (using his first name, Christian), is equally poor; something to do with a plan to steal chips being used in a new satellite system. Details are vague, too many sequences, such as the one at the race-track, are just meaningless filler, and the writer literally doesn’t know his acronyms from his anagrams. On the plus side, Julie Strain makes a good impression as a bad girl, leading her coven of killers who drop their tops at the drop of a…well, not just hat, but virtually any other piece of clothing.

    They operate out of what appears to be a combination line-dancing bar/strip-club called Cowboy’s in Dallas, where the four chips are scheduled to be integrated into the system. For safe keeping, the “bureau” give one to each of their agents – what’s wrong with a bank vault? – led by the ludicrously over-inflated Samantha Maxx (Phillips). Another key clue is bullets found at the scene of a drive-by shooting, days after the event. I’d have words with your forensic technicians.

    Long before the end, we were making our own entertainment, and you’ll probably get more fun from mocking this. One line is, “I told you – I bite”, to which the correct response is, “Unlike the rest of the film, which simply sucks.” “Do you think those are real?” asked Chris at one point, regarding a particularly scary pair of mammaries. “Yes,” I replied, “and the Pyramids are a naturally-occurring rock formation.” Little wonder Drew has since been relegated by Dad to second-unit work.

    Dir: Drew Sidaris
    Star: Sam Phillips, Bruce Penhall, Julie Strain, Wendy Hamilton

  • Day of the Warrior

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    Andy was back on the helm for this one, but appears to have opted to go beyond subtle self-referential digs into full-blown camp, and I tend to think this takes away from the overall experience. The intent is clear when we are brought into the office of Willow Black, the head of L.E.T.H.A.L. (The Legion to Ensure Total Harmony and Law), and find her exercising on a treadmill in an outfit more suited for an exotic dancer. Which makes sense, because if you’re a female agent of LETHAL, you can bet you’ll be going undercover as a stripper or a porn actress – not quite the empowering government job one might expect. It also appears that breast enlargement surgery is required for all such operatives.

    The target this time is the Warrior (Bagwell, who was a fixture in WCW at the time), a former agent turned professional wrestler(!) turned liberator of ancient artefacts and runner of a range of dubious business enterprises, ranging from bootleg films to diamond smuggling. LETHAL have several agents undercover, but someone hacks into their computers (which seem strangely retro from this viewing point). So the spies have to be brought in from the cold by Tiger (Sidaris newcomer Marks) before their cover is blow, including Cobra (Smith), the aforementioned undercover stripper – though there’s not much of her under cover. There is also, for no readily apparent reason, a Chinese Elvis impersonator (Gerald Okamura), though I have to say, he is kinda engaging.

    The problem is, when it’s obvious the makers aren’t taking this seriously – and that’s clear from the handicap wrestling match which is the climax, between Willow and Elvis Fu on one side, and the Warrior on the other – why should the audience bother? And though the tone is clearly intended to be light-hearted, it’s not actually very funny: the comic hamming of the Warrior’s surfer-dude sidekicks is particularly dreadful. There also seems to be a lot of padding, such as stock-footage shots of Las Vegas, which go way beyond anything necessary or interesting, and you get far more uses of “I need to get something off my chest,” than are in any way amusing.

    And if ever I become an evil overlord, I will instruct all my minions on the perils of hiding out in a shack with “Fuel Supply” spray-painted on the side, especially when the opposition has access to an explosive-tipped crossbow… It can never end well for those seeking cover.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Shae Marks, Julie K. Smith, Marcus Bagwell, Kevin Light

  • Return to Savage Beach

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    This was Sidaris’s last film, and after the disappointment of Warrior, it’s nice to see him return to a more straightforward approach, with little of the post-modernity attempted there. It is largely a sequel to Savage Beach, with a raid on the LETHAL offices puzzling Willow (Strain) and her agents, because the only thing accessed was the files on that case, which have long been closed. However, it turns out the villain there, Rodrigo (Obregon) did not die in a fiery, explosive-tipped crossbow bolt explosion as thought, and now sports a nifty mask, apparently lifted from a production of Phantom of the Opera. He sends his blonde minion in her submarine(!), along with his ninjas(!!), back to the island to claim a priceless Golden Buddha buried there, and it’s up to Cobra (Smith), Tiger (Marks) and their himbo colleagues, to stop him.

    There are plenty of elements to provoke amusement here, witting and unwitting. The former would include a response to an agent’s description of her revealing dress as “Just something I threw on”, which is basically, “Looks like you missed low.” The latter? Their ‘Lacrosse’ satellite, which they use to track bad guys, but whose footage is clearly not taken from anything like overhead. There’s also the return of the remote-controlled toys, used to dispatch more than one guy, Ava Cadell’s reprise as the bikini-clad radio host of KSXY (along with the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as her engineer Harry the Cat!), and how all the heroines and villainess are inevitably caught right when they are changing. I also enjoyed the nuclear countdown, which doesn’t just countdown, but does so in ever more hysterical tone.

    There are still some negatives: in terms of drama, the movie effectively ends with that countdown, but there’s still 20 minutes to go. So it’s mostly filled with a rambling explanation by Rodrigo of everything that has happened to him in the decade since…which turns out to be completely irrelevant [“How many endings does this story have?” asks one character, with justification]. It’d also have been really nice if they’d brought back not just Obregon, but also the female stars of the original Savage Beach, Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton, rather than just use stock footage; their IMDB credits don’t show them as exactly having been busy. Still, with lines like “Now, what about that swim?” – and, oh look, their tops have come off – this is a fitting memorial to Sidaris, containing all the elements which made his films what they were.

    Dir: Andy Sidaris
    Star: Julie Strain, Shae Marks, Julie K. Smith, Rodrigo Obregon

Aliens


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“Queen of outer space”

Few sequels are as good as the original, never mind surpass it. The Godfather II. Evil Dead 2. Mad Max II. But perhaps the finest of them all is Aliens, which did something obvious with the premise, yet executed it with breathtaking audacity to make what remains, even almost two decades later, one of the finest          films of all-time.

Yep, a blank, which you can fill in a number of ways. Science-fiction, certainly; horror, too. But I personally rate Aliens as one of the finest action movies of all time – whether it beats Die Hard depends almost entirely on which one I’ve seen more recently – and if you were to argue that it’s a classic war movie too, you wouldn’t hear loud complaints from me.

For in many ways, this is a Vietnam allegory. A technologically superior, arrogant military force lands in foreign territory…and gets its butt kicked by a ferocious enemy with no moral qualms, while the non-combatants are happy to plot their demise in pursuit of some other cause. It is likely also significant that Cameron worked on First Blood, Part II, which is perhaps why some reviewers e.g. the Philadelphia Daily News, referred to Aliens as “Rambo in space”.

That over-simplifies thing enormously; the script here works on a far more efficient level, both emotionally and logically. The tricky question of how to get Ripley out to face the aliens once more is dealt with smoothly – she wants to go, in order to exorcise the ghosts of her first encounter. Physically, she may have won that battle, but mentally, she has to fight it again every time she goes to sleep, and it’s killing her, one nightmare at a time. The audience might not do the same thing, but they understand why she does it.

The story also gives Ripley another reason to fight, in the persona of Newt, a young girl found in the airducts of the otherwise inhospitable base – her survival for several weeks there surely has enough material for a movie by itself. This resonates with particular force in the director’s cut, which includes a scene where Ripley learns of her daughter’s death, turning Newt into a surrogate child. This makes the final face-off between Ripley and the alien queen into a conflict of mothers, both intent on defending their offspring at any cost, even their own lives. It’s a terrific concept, almost unique in the genre up to that point, and still rare even today.

The other issue was how to make the monster as terrifying as it was originally. This wasn’t the first time Cameron had been brought in to direct a genre sequel, though I suspect he might not thank me for mentioning Piranha II: Flying Killers in this context. But here, as there, he re-invented the basic concept, albeit in this case with a good deal more logic and coherence. If one alien is terrifying, how about a hundred?

alien4In addition, he imbued them with movement, something almost lacking first time round, where the monster lurked, came out, grabbed you, then vanished into the shadows again. Here, they’re in your face – or if not, are coming towards it at high speed. With cinematic smoke and mirrors, Cameron created the illusion of dozens of creatures, but in reality only had six actual suits – if you watch the film, you’ll never see more than this number of aliens in any shot.

It does take its own sweet time getting there, with the first adult alien not being seen until over 70 minutes into the extended version of the movie. You can certainly see why some cuts were made for the theatrical version, such as the discovery of the aliens by the colonists [though someone could do an Alien 1.5, covering the gap between that discovery and the arrival of the Marines here]. But the subsidiary characters are such great fun to be around, that this delay isn’t a chore. Hudson, Hicks, Vasquez (left – Jenette Goldstein is perhaps the best supporting action heroine in cinema history), Apone, and the rest of the marines are fabulous, entire personalities being generated in just a few words, and what could come off as unjustified arrogance is actually endearing.

Add in Paul Reiser’s corporate slime, Carter Burke, and Bishop the android (Henriksen), who confounds Ripley’s expectations of how an “artificial person” should act, and all of these help make Aliens one of the most eminently-quotable films of recent years. Let’s pause for a moment and enjoy, once again, some of those classic lines…

The Ten Best Aliens quotes

  • 10. Hudson: We’re on an express elevator to hell – going down!
  • 9. Ripley: These people are here to protect you. They’re soldiers.
    Newt: It won’t make any difference.
  • 8. Vasquez: Look, man! I only need to know one thing – where…they…are.
  • 7. Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. That’s the only way to be sure.
  • 6. Frost: What the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?
  • 5. Hudson: Hey, Vasquez – have you ever been mistaken for a man?
    Vasquez: No. Have you?
  • 4. Hudson: Is this going to be a standup fight, sir, or another bug-hunt?
  • 3. Newt: My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.
  • 2. Hudson: That’s it, man – game over, man! Game over!
  • 1. Ripley: Get away from her, you bitch!

You can see why the Aliens patch for the computer-game, Doom, became an essential item. The two were made for each other, and I spent many hours, blasting away at face-huggers, warriors and queens with my pulse rifle, while samples such as the ones above, or accompanying this page, blared semi-randomly. Ah, happy days… Er, where was I?

On the action level, Aliens is almost flawless (I admit that a couple of effects shots during the descent haven’t stood the test of time). The first encounter between marines and the aliens in the film should be required viewing for every director interested in staging a scene more energetic than two people talking, shot in close-up. And from that point on, there’s hardly a slack second, as things go from bad to worse to this-place-is-going-to-explode-real-soon.

Ripley is more pro-active in this film than Alien, where she became the heroine almost by default, being the only person left. In the sequel, she is the first to realise that the search for the colonists has gone horribly wrong, and effectively hijacks the APC on a rescue mission. After that, she is no longer an outsider, whose opinion is an irrelevance to the professionals. She is the instigator, the innovator and also the anchor, who keeps despair from becoming as deadly an enemy as the aliens. And who can doubt her bravery when, with escape in her grasp, she turns and voluntarily goes back into the ticking nuclear-bomb of the base, in order to rescue a child she met only a few hours previously.

It’s moments like that which elevate Aliens to a special place in my heart, and the hearts of many – voters at the Internet Movie Database rank it in the top 100 films of all time. Regardless of any debate over the genre to which it belongs, this is a classic, make no mistake about it.

Dir: James Cameron
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton

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Chameleon 2: Death Match

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chameleon2Unlike most mathematics, which tends to increase in complexity the more you get into it, the second part of the series has a very simple equation:
(Die Hard * 2/3) + (Lethal Weapon / 6)
Disappointingly, study of the above shows that it manages to be significantly less than any of its component parts. Again, we have theft from well-regarded sources, but here, there is almost no originality on view. Let’s see…

  • Terrorists take over a high-rise building…
  • …as a decoy operation for their actual goal.
  • The hero(ine) must take them on single-handed…
  • …save for occasional communications with the black cop running things outside…
  • …while exchanging taunts with their leader via a walkie-talkie.

The plagiarism is more focused too, ripping off highly specific elements, such as the terrorist leader accepting a hostage’s offer of help before killing him, and even the style – witness the bad guy who plummets to his doom from a window, in a shower of broken glass, limbs flailing wildly. It’s shot from above in exactly the same way as Die Hard, and was the point at which I began to yearn feverishly to watch John McTiernan’s greatly superior effort. [Though admittedly, it’s also greatly superior to almost all action movies, save Aliens]

You get a lot less sex than in the first part; in fact, none to speak of. There’s not even any sexual tension between Kam and her new partner, Booker (Siemaszko), who just engage in the kind of bickering familiar to anyone who has seen a buddy-cop film. Oddly, there is absolutely no mention of the kid who had bonded so firmly to Kam – by the end of part one, she could even say the F-word to him. That’s “family”, in case you’re wondering. I should perhaps stress that this is merely an observation, rather than a complaint.

Booker and Kam are one team sent into the hijacked tower-block to find out what’s going on and solve the problem. The next hour goes almost exactly as you’d expect, with the terrorists progressing towards their goal, and Kam trying to stop them. Even more than previously, she does seem to keep forgetting to use her power – in such hostile surroundings, I’d have it on all the time. There may be some neurological or biochemical reason for this: it’d have been nice if they’d actually bothered to mention it though.

There’s one sequence with Kam scurrying, lightning-fast, up a ventilation shaft (left) and a rather good brawl involving her that made me sit up and pay attention, offering hope for the rest of the movie. It’s a red herring. The last twenty minutes finally stop slavishly cloning Bruce Willis, with the villain not being who you’d expect (though if you think about who played the bad guys in the Die Hard trilogy, it’s not hard to work out). One good twist at the end is Kam recovering the “loot” and using it for her own ends, which extends her nicely amoral attitude. There’s also a nod to Kam’s not-entirely human origins, and how they affect her emotions, which would be a good avenue for future exploration.

But overall, this is a poor follow-up. You shouldn’t try to remake classics, unless you can bring something new to the party, and while Phillips is certainly no worse an actor than Bruce Willis, it’s not enough to stop this seeming a lame copy.

Dir: Craig R.Baxley
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Don Battee, Casey Siemaszko, Tasha Smith

Chameleon

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chameleonIn mathematical terms, an approximation to Chameleon can be expressed by the following formula:
(Leon / Blade Runner)2 * Terminator 2 + (0.2 * Predator)
To go step by step through the equation:

  • Leon: an emotionless assassin discovers new depths within themselves, thanks to a child rescued from a corrupt government officer, also responsible for killing the kid’s parents. Together they develop mutual respect and track down the villain.
  • Blade Runner: artificially-created humanoid life, with a deliberately restricted lifespan, rebels against its creator and tries to extend its longevity. A bounty-hunter is sent on the trail. The twist here, is that good and bad are reversed from Ridley Scott’s classic.
  • Terminator 2: ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding killing machine is taught compassion by a young boy, who possesses something of potentially vital importance to the future of society.
  • Predator: the ability to blend into the background, leaving no trace save for a shimmery heat-haze.

There: that’s the essential elements covered. This is doing it a slight disservice, since it does have some genuine original ideas, but there is an awful lot which is blatantly lifted from elsewhere. However, credit must be given for stealing from excellent sources, and enough of those involved go at their work with sufficient enthusiasm and energy to make you forget its less than groundbreaking setting and storyline.

The plot revolves around a hacked computer credit chip which is the equivalent of a bottomless bank account: just before the inventor is slain, he passes it on to his son, and when Kam is ordered to kill him and recover the chip, she rebels and rescues him. She heads off to the countryside to escape, where she links up with a group living outside the urban world where the vast majority of the population now reside (nicely, the countryside has become almost a myth to townsfolk). There, she must fend off the bounty-hunter sent to track her down, as well as coming to terms with the uncertain human feelings she is steadily feeling, before returning for the inevitable showdown with her creator.

Bobbie Phillips delivers an excellent performance as Kam. In films like this, the balance is important; it’s easy for the heroine to fall into being unsympathetic at one end, or weak at the other, but that’s not the case here. Kam comes across with an almost childlike innocence in some ways, but is perfectly happy with using her sexuality for gain, at one point whoring herself in exchange for gas. It’s a nice contradiction that helps to provide depth to what could be just a stock character. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast don’t work as well; Eric Lloyd as the child is particularly irritating, and the villain lacks anything to make you hate him with the necessary intensity. [Returning to the inspirations above, he should take lessons from Gary Oldman or Rutger Hauer]

The action here seems restrained; a little gunplay and some minor martial arts, but nothing particularly memorable. The sexual scenes make the made-for-TV origins painfully clear, with sheets that appear to be velcro’d to Phillips’ breasts, when she doesn’t have her elbows elegantly positioned in front of them. Still, there’s enough here in the central character to make me want to see more…and lo, what’s this coming along?

Dir: Stuart Cooper.
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Eric Lloyd, John Adam, Jerome Ehlers

Heroic Trio

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I usually start watching this in a sense of disbelief, since it’s certainly not the most immediately convincing of movies. However, there’s a point near the middle which has in quick succession an amazing action sequence and two revelations, one touching, one tragic, and I realise that I am, yet again, utterly buying into the characters, storyline and setting. Disbelief simply ceases to be an option, and by the end, I know why this is among my all-time favourites, not just in the action heroine genre, but among all cinema.

While you can’t pin this down into any genre, it’s probably the intensity which carries the film. No-one does anything in half measures, be it love, hate, kidnap babies or eat their own severed fingers. The film captures the comic-book at its most primordial: good vs. evil, told in bold strokes and capital letters. SHAZAMM! “Evil”, in this case, is a demonic eunuch – looks male, sounds female – who is collecting baby boys whose horoscopes have them destined to be emperors, in order to rule and, er…the usual bad guy stuff. He is assisted by Invisible Girl (Yeoh), whom he has brainwashed into stealing an invisibility cloak from her inventor husband. It doesn’t work in sunlight, however, which is the only thing stopping our villain from executing his plan.

For the forces of good, we have Wonder Woman (Mui), a policeman’s wife with a secret identity, and Thief Catcher (Cheung), a bounty-huntress who gets involved after she accidentally kills a baby while trying to lure the kidnapper out. She and Invisible Girl were childhood pals, and also knows that the three must join forces to have a chance of stopping the Big Bad. The casting is perfect: Cheung the perky optimist, Yeoh the tormented control victim, and Mui the calm and quiet wife with a secret. [There are suggestions the three represent China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – which is which, I leave up to you] Credit is also due to the rest of the cast, notably Wong as the wordless evil henchman, with a taste for self-cannibalism, small birds and a fatal flying guillotine.

The action, choreographed by Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu-Tung is also spot on, though one suspect doubles were used for chunks. Particularly at the finale, there are times when the effects do over-reach themselves, and a little less ambition might have been wise. But the fact that everyone takes it completely seriously helps a great deal, though there are still question-marks over the plot: are the baby hostages safely rescued or not? At one point, Thief Catcher chucks a few sticks of dynamite into the villain’s nursery, saying the infants are hopelessly corrupt – not something you’ll see in any Hollywood movie! But at the end, the TV shows parents who look rather happier than you’d expect if they were being handed a plastic bag full of bits.

Still, it’s not often a film manages to run the entire gamut of emotions. Inside 87 minutes, you get laughter, tears, moments both “awww” and “eugh – gross!” (that’ll be Anthony Wong), thrills, chills and enough flamboyant style to power several graphic novels. It wasn’t that big a hit at home, taking less than HK$10 million at the box-office (in comparison, the biggest Hong Kong film of 1993, Stephen Chow’s Flirting Scholar, took over HK$40m), but its cult status in the West is entirely justified. Be sure to avoid the horrific dubbed version though – indeed, be sure to avoid the horrific trailer too.

Dir: Johnnie To
Stars: Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Wong

The Chameleon series: An algebraic overview

This trilogy of movies originally started with UPN in 1998, and had the clear aim of trying to generate enough interest for an ongoing show. As yet, that hasn’t materialised (it was most recently considered after part 3, according to Sci Fi Wire), but the series has been going strong anyway.

The setting is the near-future, when corporations have taken over, and even the FBI is now the Incorporated Bureau of Investigations. The star is Bobbie Phillips, who plays Kam, a creation of the IBI. She was made as a special agent, with mostly human DNA, but also traces of cougar, falcon and chameleon. This gives her an interesting power: she can make her skin match her surroundings almost perfectly. Fortunately – or not – this skill is also possessed by her clothes, which is a bit of a plot clunker, designed to avoid both the traditional Invisible Man-styled floating shirts, and gratuitous nudity.

It does beg the question: if you have material that can do this, why go to all the bother of breeding a person that can do it? Wouldn’t it be easier (and more fun for the audience!) to just give them a nice Seven-of-Nineish catsuit? The effect is nicely realised, even if it’s an ability only used at moments essential to the plot – when she mounts her final assault on the villain’s lair, it would be sensible to do so invisibly, but that would make for duller viewing.

Shot in Queensland, Australia, these may not be the most original pieces of work that you’ll ever see, but they are certainly a cut above most TV movies and deserve a better fate than late-night reruns on the Sci-Fi channel (which is where I first accidentally stumbled across them). Hence this primer, which will hopefully encourage mathematicians and others to seek them out.

  • Chameleon

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    chameleonIn mathematical terms, an approximation to Chameleon can be expressed by the following formula:
    (Leon / Blade Runner)2 * Terminator 2 + (0.2 * Predator)
    To go step by step through the equation:

    • Leon: an emotionless assassin discovers new depths within themselves, thanks to a child rescued from a corrupt government officer, also responsible for killing the kid’s parents. Together they develop mutual respect and track down the villain.
    • Blade Runner: artificially-created humanoid life, with a deliberately restricted lifespan, rebels against its creator and tries to extend its longevity. A bounty-hunter is sent on the trail. The twist here, is that good and bad are reversed from Ridley Scott’s classic.
    • Terminator 2: ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding killing machine is taught compassion by a young boy, who possesses something of potentially vital importance to the future of society.
    • Predator: the ability to blend into the background, leaving no trace save for a shimmery heat-haze.

    There: that’s the essential elements covered. This is doing it a slight disservice, since it does have some genuine original ideas, but there is an awful lot which is blatantly lifted from elsewhere. However, credit must be given for stealing from excellent sources, and enough of those involved go at their work with sufficient enthusiasm and energy to make you forget its less than groundbreaking setting and storyline.

    The plot revolves around a hacked computer credit chip which is the equivalent of a bottomless bank account: just before the inventor is slain, he passes it on to his son, and when Kam is ordered to kill him and recover the chip, she rebels and rescues him. She heads off to the countryside to escape, where she links up with a group living outside the urban world where the vast majority of the population now reside (nicely, the countryside has become almost a myth to townsfolk). There, she must fend off the bounty-hunter sent to track her down, as well as coming to terms with the uncertain human feelings she is steadily feeling, before returning for the inevitable showdown with her creator.

    Bobbie Phillips delivers an excellent performance as Kam. In films like this, the balance is important; it’s easy for the heroine to fall into being unsympathetic at one end, or weak at the other, but that’s not the case here. Kam comes across with an almost childlike innocence in some ways, but is perfectly happy with using her sexuality for gain, at one point whoring herself in exchange for gas. It’s a nice contradiction that helps to provide depth to what could be just a stock character. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast don’t work as well; Eric Lloyd as the child is particularly irritating, and the villain lacks anything to make you hate him with the necessary intensity. [Returning to the inspirations above, he should take lessons from Gary Oldman or Rutger Hauer]

    The action here seems restrained; a little gunplay and some minor martial arts, but nothing particularly memorable. The sexual scenes make the made-for-TV origins painfully clear, with sheets that appear to be velcro’d to Phillips’ breasts, when she doesn’t have her elbows elegantly positioned in front of them. Still, there’s enough here in the central character to make me want to see more…and lo, what’s this coming along?

    Dir: Stuart Cooper.
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Eric Lloyd, John Adam, Jerome Ehlers

  • Chameleon 2: Death Match

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    chameleon2Unlike most mathematics, which tends to increase in complexity the more you get into it, the second part of the series has a very simple equation:
    (Die Hard * 2/3) + (Lethal Weapon / 6)
    Disappointingly, study of the above shows that it manages to be significantly less than any of its component parts. Again, we have theft from well-regarded sources, but here, there is almost no originality on view. Let’s see…

    • Terrorists take over a high-rise building…
    • …as a decoy operation for their actual goal.
    • The hero(ine) must take them on single-handed…
    • …save for occasional communications with the black cop running things outside…
    • …while exchanging taunts with their leader via a walkie-talkie.

    The plagiarism is more focused too, ripping off highly specific elements, such as the terrorist leader accepting a hostage’s offer of help before killing him, and even the style – witness the bad guy who plummets to his doom from a window, in a shower of broken glass, limbs flailing wildly. It’s shot from above in exactly the same way as Die Hard, and was the point at which I began to yearn feverishly to watch John McTiernan’s greatly superior effort. [Though admittedly, it’s also greatly superior to almost all action movies, save Aliens]

    You get a lot less sex than in the first part; in fact, none to speak of. There’s not even any sexual tension between Kam and her new partner, Booker (Siemaszko), who just engage in the kind of bickering familiar to anyone who has seen a buddy-cop film. Oddly, there is absolutely no mention of the kid who had bonded so firmly to Kam – by the end of part one, she could even say the F-word to him. That’s “family”, in case you’re wondering. I should perhaps stress that this is merely an observation, rather than a complaint.

    Booker and Kam are one team sent into the hijacked tower-block to find out what’s going on and solve the problem. The next hour goes almost exactly as you’d expect, with the terrorists progressing towards their goal, and Kam trying to stop them. Even more than previously, she does seem to keep forgetting to use her power – in such hostile surroundings, I’d have it on all the time. There may be some neurological or biochemical reason for this: it’d have been nice if they’d actually bothered to mention it though.

    There’s one sequence with Kam scurrying, lightning-fast, up a ventilation shaft (left) and a rather good brawl involving her that made me sit up and pay attention, offering hope for the rest of the movie. It’s a red herring. The last twenty minutes finally stop slavishly cloning Bruce Willis, with the villain not being who you’d expect (though if you think about who played the bad guys in the Die Hard trilogy, it’s not hard to work out). One good twist at the end is Kam recovering the “loot” and using it for her own ends, which extends her nicely amoral attitude. There’s also a nod to Kam’s not-entirely human origins, and how they affect her emotions, which would be a good avenue for future exploration.

    But overall, this is a poor follow-up. You shouldn’t try to remake classics, unless you can bring something new to the party, and while Phillips is certainly no worse an actor than Bruce Willis, it’s not enough to stop this seeming a lame copy.

    Dir: Craig R.Baxley
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Don Battee, Casey Siemaszko, Tasha Smith

  • Chameleon 3: Dark Angel

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    chameleon3Part three is a return to form, despite a title which might now seem suspiciously unoriginal, at first glance on the video shelves. But it actually predates James Cameron’s series, leaving his genetically-altered, motorcycle-riding loner firmly in the position of late-comer. The mathematics for this one are harder to define, since the ideas on view are…well, if in light of the first two movies, I’m reluctant to claim originality, they are at least taken from less obvious sources. There is thus an “X” factor to take in account here, where X may or may not be genuine inventiveness.
    (Chameleon / Kung-fu movies) + (Dirty Harry / 6)2 + Factor X

    Note the semi-recursive nature of the formula, with one major element from the first film being rehashed, namely Kam’s acquisition of a child into her protective custody. Note also the plot inversion of many a kung-fu movie – these may be summarised as, “you killed my brother and you must pay!”, while here, it’s “you are my brother and you must pay!”. Yes, the chief threat here comes from Cain, another DNA-hybrid: wolf, bat, etc. though I’m unaware of any of them having the startling regenerative powers he has. Maybe the bat was part vampire, in which case Kam could always try decapitation and stuffing a holy wafer in his mouth, for nothing else – even impalement with a pipe – is a long-term solution. Time to call in Buffy, perhaps.

     A bunch of physicists, including teenage prodigy Tess (Teal Redmann – who, Chris points out, looks like a young Renee Zellwegger), are working on a sample of “dark matter”, when rudely interrupted by Cain. He makes off with it at the behest of his master (bald head, sneer and clearly planning towards Being John Malkovich) for the usual mercenary gain purposes. Unfortunately, the dark matter is unstable and Tess has to convince Kam that in 48 hours, the planet will be gurgling down a black hole like leftover soap-suds. So far, so ho-hum, but the only way to stop it is by exploding an electromagnetic pulse bomb – and the only person to have one powerful enough is a wheelchair-bound terrorist called The Mongoose. Will they find him in time?

    I imagine no-one genuinely doubts the answer, but this adds a whole new plot twist, especially as the last time the Mongoose activated his weapon, its impact was pretty heavy. What happens when it’s used here is never really shown, and there is some scientific handwaving about the black hole absorbing all the energy, but it would be gratifying to think that it became necessary to destroy the city in order to save it. Not least because Cameron’s Dark Angel starts with a very similar premise.

    Even if the heroine’s chameleon-like powers have been all but forgotten, this is the best entry in the series, with some great action, notably Kam’s single-handed demolition of the Mongoose’s gang – I saw this just after coming back from Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon, and it’s a battle which stands up well in comparison. Her ruthless brutality is also surprising and you can only sympathise with her handlers, futilely trying to keep her in check. She does what she want, when she wants, to whom she wants, and can only be applauded for it. The child actor here is also a great deal less annoying than first time around, an obvious relief to the viewer.

    There, for the moment, the series rests. What lies in the future is hard to tell, but given the ongoing success of shows like Buffy, Xena and La Femme Nikita, it’d be a foolish man who would write off the chances of Chameleon finally making it onto the small screen.

    Dir: John Lafia
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Teal Redmann, Alex Kuzelicki, Doug Penty

Wholly Trinity

Police Officer: “I think we can handle one little girl. I sent two units. They’re bringing her down now.”
Agent Smith: “No, Lieutenant. Your men are already dead.”

[Of necessity, this article contains spoilers for both The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded. If you haven’t seen these two films, you might not want to proceed. And how was the dark side of the moon?]

Few movies have been so influential as The Matrix, with its seamless combination of elements from Hong Kong action, anime, and science-fiction, to which the Wachowski brothers added a sprinkling of semi-original thoughts and some very cool sunglasses. One of the key pieces in the jigsaw is Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss – normally, supporting characters fall outside our realm here, but Trinity transcends the usual bounds imposed on such roles. Along with Lara Croft, she has become one of the most important action heroines of the past decade.

Trinity’s impact is immediate and striking; the opening sequence of the first movie features her character, welcoming us into the “anything is possible” universe of the Matrix. We see the introduction of bullet-time, the camera swinging around her as she freezes in midair, before delivering a devastating kick – an image subsequently aped in everything from box-office smashes (Shrek) to obscure arthouse films such as Takashi Miike’s City of Lost Souls. Her powers are superhuman, reflexes and agility far beyond normal; she apparently vanishes into a phone booth which is crushed by a juggernaut. As Neo would likely say: “Whoa…”

The middle is relatively quiet, Trinity taking a back seat to Morpheus as he gradually opens Neo’s eyes to the real world. But towards the end, she teams up with Neo – pulling rank on him without blinking – to rescue Morpheus, after he is captured by Agent Smith and the other Matrix guardians. The shoot-out in the lobby of that building has to rank as among the most berserk in cinematic history, with hero and heroine both kicking butt spectacularly. Chapter 29 on the DVD. :-) She goes on to pilot a helicopter, from which she leaps as it crashes into a building, then resurrects the dead hero with a kiss. Not just your basic, average, everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum supporting character.

She also opens Reloaded, riding her motorcycle through the air before leaving it, mid-flight – the bike continues on as a guided missile (see pic at top). She then gets into a gun-battle with an Agent, both of them in free-fall from a building, which ends in Trinity being shot…and Neo waking with a start, wondering if this was just a dream, or a premonition of some sort. The two have now clearly formed a relationship, which is perhaps damaging, in that Trinity’s role is now closer to that of the usual subservient girlfriend.

However, she is still more than capable of independent action, such as when she, Morpheus and Neo seek the Keymaker, and are led to him by Persephone. This leads to a battle, first against the Twins, two dreadlocked, white brothers who can pop in and out of physical existence at will. Then, as if this wasn’t enought, there’s the highway chase, where Trinity whizzes into traffic at speeds best described as “not slow”, swerving across lanes and around oncoming vehicles as if they weren’t there. The movie ends in a reversal of the first film, Neo resurrecting Trinity with a kiss. Death, where is thy sting…

I was originally going to title this piece, “Trinity – the yin to Neo’s yang,” but in reality, they aren’t complementary opposites, it’s more a blending towards each other. Neo is far from your typical action hero, lacking muscles, three-day stubble and an impenetrable accent – he’s a computer programmer, f’heavens sake! Conversely, Trinity is female without being feminine: her skills lie in traditionally masculine areas such as motorbikes, fighting and technology. “I just thought…you were a guy,” says Neo, on discovering she was the one who hacked the IRS’s computers. “Most guys do,” is her calm response. The portrayal of Trinity deliberately and consciously avoids any sexuality at all, which perhaps partly explains why the sex scene in Reloaded feels jarringly out of place.

Her name resonates on several possible levels:

  • The trinity formed by herself, Neo and Morpheus
  • The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Matrix was released over Easter Weekend, 1999…
  • The pagan trinity of the Triple Goddess, with womankind represented in three forms – maiden, mother and crone.
  • Trinity was where the first A-bomb was detonated in 1945, thereby starting the Atomic Age.

Note also that the room she is in at the start is number 303, while Neo’s is 101.
Which is actually the case, only the Wachowski brothers know, and they aren’t talking – this silence may be the reason why Reloaded has a more introverted feel, and IMHO doesn’t work as well. Dare I suggest, that if they loosened up and connected with their audience a bit more, the product might not resemble a Philosophy seminar quite as much.

Trinity’s feminine side does show through occasionally, however, most obviously in the nurturing way she initially cares for Neo. She brings him food, causing the traitorous Cypher to comment, “I don’t remember you ever bringing me dinner.” Trinity just rolls her eyes, but Cypher’s jealousy is perhaps a factor in pushing him over the edge into treachery and an alliance with the Agents.

This masculine/feminine contradiction is inherent in all female action heroines, and is perhaps part of the appeal. It is perhaps at the finale of The Matrix that it becomes most clear, as Trinity declares her romantic love for the dead Neo, then revives him, saying, “You can’t be dead… because I love you,” resurrecting him exactly as Prince Charming awoke his bride. It’s a complex, multi-level moment, bringing together the facets of a character which has been interpreted as everything from Mary Magdalene to Princess Leia. Let’s just hope Revolutions does not reveal she and Neo are siblings…

All this, and the ability to look very cool while kicking butt too. Credit to Carrie-Anne Moss, who not only brings depth to a character about whom we (so far) know very little – such as any real background – but who also broke a leg during training for Reloaded. She says, “While we were fighting, there wasn’t a moment that went by when I didn’t physically ache, for almost a year really,” and such commitment can only be admired. Where her career goes from here, no-one knows, but (especially given her current state, i.e. highly pregnant!) would suspect she might want to do a few costume dramas…

Underworld

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“Vampires and Werewolves and PVC, oh my!”

The day before this opened, we watched a “documentary” on AMC, entitled Fang vs. Fiction: The Real Underworld of Vampires and Werewolves. Quotes used advisedly, as they must be when the program interviewed someone who said he was a werewolf. Regrettably, despite our yelling at the TV, he refused to transform on camera, claiming it was too taxing. Wuss. What it did demonstrate was that the old stereotypes are alive and well – or at least undead and well. And so it is with Underworld: the vampires all dress in black, and mope around a mansion like 18th-century slackers. Not what I’d be doing if I was an immortal. Which is probably why I amn’t.

A bit of an exception is Selene (Beckinsale), a “death dealer”, part of a team of vampires who go out and hunt down werewolves – the two races have been at war for the past fourteen centuries. When she discovers a party of lycanthropes following a human, Michael Corvin (Speedman), she realises something is up, and uncovers a plot to create a vamp-wolf hybrid. She awakens her mentor, Viktor (Nighy) from his slumber 100 years too soon, which brings down the wrath of clan leader Kraven (Broly), who is ‘suspicious’ in more ways than one. Add her growing feelings for Corvin, and life is going to be kinda complex for Selene.

There’s a lot to admire about this film. Beckinsale is great, and the look of the film far surpasses what you’d expect from the budget ($20m) – it’s filmed in an almost monochrome way, and this makes sense, given it takes place almost entirely at night. The script holds together elements which feel supernatural, with a healthy dose of science: no garlic, no holy water, and no crosses here, but daylight and silver still do the job, however.

 What doesn’t work, on any level, is the Selene-Corvin relationship, which is never given any reason to blossom as it does. Worse, still, though the film is told largely from Selene’s point of view, at the end, it’s Corvin who has to battle against The Big Bad [and I’d best not say who that is; the film takes delight in pulling the carpet out from under the viewer]. Sure, Selene gets to deliver the coup de grace – and impressively so – but reducing the heroine to someone left holding her man’s coat, is mostly why this one doesn’t get our seal of approal. Making it even more embarrassing, by this stage, the hero looks like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk.

And that’s a shame, since the first half in particular is a joy to behold. It hits the ground running, with a subway shootout that will likely leave your popcorn quietly forgotten in your lap, and Selene’s independent and feisty streak is swiftly established, rapidly winning us over. Also worthy of praise is Nighy, who exudes exactly the sort of aristocratic grumpiness you’d expect from an immortal being who has just been shaken roughly awake. Neither Speedman nor Broly make any impression at all – the former is perhaps more forgivable (he’s a mere human, after all), but you’d expect a vampire leader to ooze charisma and personality. Or at least have one…

The most obvious influences are Blade 2 – not least in the Eastern European setting (for the dark streets of Prague, read the dark streets of Budapest; both are now overused, we need to discover a new continent or something) – and The Matrix, with Beckinsale dressing like Carrie-Anne Moss on her way to Goth-Industrial Nite. Plenty of slow-mo and wirework enhance the feeling that this is a particularly murky corner of the Wachowski Brothers world.

There are some plot points which are never quite explained. At one point, Selene hides Corvin in a safe house, which then mysteriously comes under attack from the lycanthropes. How did they know? Why the werewolves don’t take advantage of the daylight, and avoid moving around at night when the vampires are about? It probably also gets rather too embroiled in creating an entire society and culture for the vampires, explaining stuff not necessary to a 90-minute movie – that’s why it’s actually a 121-minute movie.

And, some lawyers believe, not an original one. Sony are being sued by game makers White Wolf, who allege 60 points of copyright infringement with their games. Personally, this sounds like a cheap publicity ploy, but to add to the tension, Beckinsale left the father of her child, Michael Sheen, who plays the head of the werewolves, and is now shacked up with the film’s director, Len Wiseman. Bet that made for a cheerful wrap party. Overall, this is disappointing – however, only slightly so, and for most of the movie, it’ll provide plenty to keep movie-goers with horror/action tendencies entertained. And we also got to see the trailer for Kill Bill and the sublime teaser for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (not what it appears at first!) – as female action heroine sessions go, a pretty good day’s work.

[A lot of people seem to come here looking for info on the weapons Beckinsale used in the film. From what I’ve been told, she used a range of guns, including a Walther P99 9mm and the Beretta 92FS and/or 93R’s. Hope this helps! :-)]

Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy