Cape Fear: Action heroines, comic-book style

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While 2003 has been touted as the Year of the Comic-book Movie, those centred around heroines have been notable by their absence. Sure, X-Men 2, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Daredevil have then in supporting roles, but going by the example of the last-named, anyone expecting much is likely to be sorely disappointed. Elektra, one of the toughest, deepest, most twisted characters in comics history – at least in the Bill Sienkiewicz/Frank Miller incarnation – was reduced to little more than a simplistic sidebar of little relevance. Credit to Jennifer Garner for doing what she could, but it’s safe to say that we’re not awaiting the touted Elektra spinoff with anything more than a “that’s nice” level of anticipation.

Nor are we holding our breath for Catwoman, just this week rumoured to have Halle Berry in the title role previously linked to Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This one has been popping up ever since Batman Returns – I would be surprised if we saw it before 2005 at the earliest, since the studio is largely busy next year, and it seems likely to have lower priority than a new entry in the Batman franchise.

The reasons for the shortage may be cinema’s long memory. Attempts at comic-book heroines have largely proved dismal failures at the box-office – Supergirl and Brenda Starr are good examples. But, hey, the terrible disasters which were Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter didn’t stop them turning video games into movies. And the small screen has shown little such aversion, back to the days of Wonder Woman. Witchblade and Birds of Prey have recently found incarnations in television, albeit not without problems of their own. Danger Girl is currently rumoured to be the next one making the leap.

The situation is radically different in Japan, not least because manga, as their comics are called, are universally popular rather than being perceived as fanboy-driven. Comics go particularly in hand with anime, animation which may be cinema features, TV series or OAVs (Original Animation Videos) made for DVD or tape consumption. The last-named has been particularly kind to action heroines, with entries like Outlanders and Battle Angel, and one wonders if this might be a productive route forward in the West too. Despite the lack of direct conversions to hand out of Hollywood – though check out Comics 2 Film for updated info on whatever titles you fancy – a number of films do exist which have taken at least various aspects of comic-book style, and incorporated them into the end product. This has been with varying degrees of success, it has to be said, but here are a few of the more easily accessible.

  • Heroic Trio


    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 Demolitionist


    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

  • Black Scorpion


    Roger Corman is a man without shame – and that’s in no way intended as an insult. He simply utilises any resource to the best of its ability, as is shown by the three versions he’s made of Not of This Earth, in 1956, 1988 and 1995. Black Scorpion similarly showcases his ability to take a thin storyline, basically little more than a Batman clone, and parlay it into two movies made for Showtime and a TV series. Even if the results proved steadily more lacklustre, such industry can only be admired. Present in the movies, but absent in the show, is former model Joan Severance, veteran of The Red Shoe Diaries, and she certainly cuts a striking figure – like most Roger Corman films, the film sells itself as much on the sleeve as plot, characters or talent. It’s your basic costumed vigilante, driven to operate outside the law following the death of a loved one, possessing cool gadgets and a neat car with which to fight crime.

    The main problem with this film is an inability to decide whether to take itself seriously; there’s no consistency in tone, not least between hero and villain. Darcy (Severance) plays it all dead straight in her role as a suspended cop, but the villain is a Darth Vader clone called The Breathtaker who, with his army of “wheezing warriors”, wants to make everyone in Gotha…er, the City of Angels breathe like him. Now, in Batman, Adam West also took it seriously, but with such an air of scenery-chewing to his deadpan, that it enhanced the whole effect. Here, the opposites cancel out, leaving something whose tone is decidedly herky-jerky. There are decent moments, however, a lot of them coming from Saturday Night Live original member Garrett Morris, who gets his performance just right as Darcy’s mechanic. He comes up with toys such as a computer that requires all commands to be prefaced with “Yo!” – more of this wit would have been welcome. We also liked the villain’s wrestling henchwomen who insisted on being tagged-in before they can fight.

    However, the movie stumbles badly out of the blocks, a lengthy prologue making for sluggish viewing. All the set-up would perhaps have been better off placed as flashbacks throughout, rather than in one lump at the start. We could then have got to the meat – Scorpion kicking butt – from the get-go, rather than having to wait 35 minutes for the titular heroine to appear. The action scenes are nothing special, save for the amusing way Scorpion’s high heels suddenly become flat whenever she is required to do more than stand still. Presumably her boots possess the same technology as her car, which mutates from a Corvette into a Porsche at the touch of a “Yo!” – they also, somehow, give her the ability to clear tall buildings with a single bound, proving that Corman’s collection of DC comics is broad indeed.

    Of course, the one area where Corman can actually surpass the Dark Knight is sex. Hence, two scenes in a strip-club (set on different days, but conveniently for the budget, with the same stripper on stage!) and the fanboy-service sequence of Black Scorpion, in costume, seducing her cop partner. Word is, it was actually performed by a body double, which seems odd given Severance’s previous history. While mostly plodding, the overall result is not totally dreadful, passing 92 tolerable minutes – though we were anaesthetising ourselves with plenty of rum-soaked pineapple throughout. However, there’s very little here to justify a sequel, or explain the need for a spin-off TV series; that we ended up with both, is proof of Corman’s talents in the field.

    Dir: Jonathan Winfrey
    Star: Joan Severance, Bruce Abbott, Rick Rossovic, Garrett Morris

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