Reel Knockouts, edited by Martha McCaughey + Neal King

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“Text and Violence.”

“The challenge…is to find a middle ground between cinematic enjoyment and cultural critique.”

The above quote, from one essay in this collection of pieces on “violent women in the movies”, perhaps sums up its main problem. I cheerfully admit that my writing is skewed heavily towards the former point of view, but even so, too many of the authors here seem concerned with squeezing meanings out of films that were never intended to be there. This over-analytical approach results in the book swinging between thought-provoking and infuriating on almost every page.

My opinion is that truth and the movies are almost mutually exclusive. Reality is rarely cinematic, and is likely to be an early casualty – see any “true story” for an example of how facts are modified and sacrificed in the name of art. Cinema is thus no more an accurate mirror of society, than it is any other area. An alien trying to learn history, say, from Hollywood, would believe America defeated Hitler single-handed, before going on to glorious victory in Vietnam.

Nor do I feel that movies influence society. The editors suggest that female action heroines are a self-defence tool, in that they might make men think twice about attacking a woman for fear of retaliation. It’s an interesting idea, but how many rapists went to see Enough? And even if they did, the result might be more violence, in order to pre-empt a response. The net impact, however, is likely to be negligible.

There is also an assumption in several places that all violent women are male fantasies, which – for about the only time in the book! – is over-simplistic. The concept of heroes and villain is non-gender specific, and no violent woman could come to the screen without the explicit collusion of at least one female, the actress playing her. Not that this satisfies some contributors, who seem unhappy whether a heroine shows feminine attributes (cliched weakness!) or not (she’s just a man in drag!).

It’d be unfair to cover such a disparate collection with one review, so I’d like to cover each article separately, albeit not in as much depth as some of them deserve. If you just want a quick overview, feel free to skip the section between the lines, since I sense this is no longer going to end up in the “short review” section!

  • Wendy Arons’ piece on Hong Kong films is severely flawed on a number of levels. She admits to never having been there, yet attempts to shoehorn product primarily aimed at a local market, into American culture and points of view. She also concentrates on the extremes, devoting much space to Naked Killer and ignoring the mainstream where female martial artists are neither ugly harridans nor nymphomaniacs e.g. the In the Line of Duty series. With unsupported statements like “where violent women do appear as villains, their gender often marks them as more evil than their male accomplices,” I was left shaking my head sadly.
  • Jeffrey Brown writes about stripper movies, and feels they “enact the threat of castration anxiety”. So that’s why guys watch them! Being fair, he does admit disparagingly that the “naked babes, dude! Lots of naked babes!” are a factor, but prefers to diminish its importance in favour of his own brand of questionable psychobabble. He seems – as far as I can tell – to be suggesting masochism is at work. Some people who saw Showgirls might agree with him.
  • Carol Dole’s topic is female lawmen, and traces the evolution of the genre from early attempts where the women were hardly different from men, to more complex efforts such as Copycat and Fargo. This aspect is revealing, but she also equates every transfer of a firearm with castration, rather than accepting it as a plot device. As Freud almost said, sometimes a gun is just a gun.
  • After this, Suzanna Walters comes as a relief. Women in prison movies are among the least-subtle of genres, and she wisely makes little attempt to impose hidden depths on works which are usually as shallow as a bird-bath. She does point out their revolutionary nature, with heroines who have been screwed by the system and destroy it from within. I also felt there was genuine enthusiasm, something too often missing from this book, where most writers apparently regard film as a tool rather than entertainment.
  • Sharon Stone is the subject for Susan Knoblach, although I’m not quite sure what her hypothesis was. It seems to be “sometimes Stone acts well, sometimes she doesn’t” – which I can agree with. But then she suggests that even Stone’s bad acting is a deliberate choice, and I’m less convinced by that. More likely, it seems to me, is that she needs careful direction. And the suggestion that in Total Recall, she was “Quaid’s blameless wife, onto whom his own nightmare projects his own anger and violence,” goes against all the evidence.
  • The second half of the book moves from genres to discussion of specific films, opening with Laura Grindstaff on Dolores Claibourne. Even though I’ve seen (and quite liked) the movie, this was the only piece in the book I couldn’t bring myself to finish. It was simply 24 pages, plus footnotes, of highly turgid prose.
  • Kimberly Springer does a much better job, even though neither Waiting to Exhale or Set It Off are familiar to me. She looks at the evolution of Black stereotypes (in this book, “Black” gets a capital, but “white” doesn’t) and I found myself disagreeing with very little of it – though as one of those darn WASP males, I’m not really in a position to do so. Springer was the source for the quote at the top, and she does a better job of meeting her own challenge than most of the authors.
  • Barbara Miller has come up with an entirely new genre: “gun-in-the-handbag” films, such as Guncrazy and feminist favourite Thelma and Louise, in which a housewife leaves her domestic sphere and becomes an outlaw. By itself, this would be fine, but her piece degenerates into an orgy of sentences such as, “Thelma shifts from what Fredric Jameson calls a modernist’s notion of a centered subject to a postmodernist’s sense of multiple personalities.” Pass the popcorn.
  • Tiina Vares’ piece was perhaps the high-point, since she demonstrated the wide range of meanings viewers can ascribe to a film. She interviewed various groups of women, from martial arts followers to peace campaigners, regarding Thelma and Louise, and the interpretations showed convincingly the breadth of “truth” which can be found, even in a single movie. Narrower still, the same person can read a film differently the first and second time. I would say this flexibility in interpretation renders much of film theory redundant; who’s to say what is correct?
  • The final article is by Judith Halberstam, a reprint of an essay originally written at the time of the L.A. riots, reflecting on the potential political implications of fantasy violence. Surprisingly, given its title of “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence”, it also includes a spirited defence of Basic Instinct. Halberstam does perhaps exaggerate the impact of cinema – let’s face it, how many movies ever change anything in the real world?

It’s nice occasionally to read a book that does provoke thought, and while often a hard slog (and one that’ll likely have readers reaching for the dictionary), I’m always happy to see a more cerebral approach to the girls with guns genre. While I may disagree – often enormously – with the majority of what’s said here, I welcome it being said at all. A broader range of views would certainly have helped though. Still, it’s probably no more than you would expect, given that the editors work in the fields of Women’s Studies and Sociology.

Editors: Martha McCaughey and Neal King
Publisher: University of Texas Press

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

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

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

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

Ultraviolet

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“U’s the boss?”

By my reckoning, that’s now five straight big-budget action-heroine pics in a row not to be screened for critics: in addition to these two, add Domino, Aeon Flux and Bloodrayne. Yet this is, like the others, no real disaster: indeed, this is a luridly visual, CGI-overkill of a movie, which unfolds exactly like the comic-books used to striking effect in the opening credits, and wears its HK action (among other) influences on its sleeve.

Of course, it probably helps that we are big fans of Equilibrium, Wimmer’s previous SF-action flick, which achieved a cult following for its sleek style and innovative “gun kata”, a scientific martial-art designed to maximize both the efficiency and survival of its practitioners. Ultraviolet could be set in a parallel universe to that, where a disease has turned some of humankind into vampires, or “hemophages” as they’re called here. The rulers, led by Daxus (Chinlund), have developed a genocidal bioweapon, which Violet (Jovovich) has been tasked by her colleagues in the vampire resistance to steal or destroy. Only, to her shock, it turns out to be a child (Bright), which brings out her maternal instincts, even as both Daxus and her former allies now seek to destroy her.

As with Resident Evil, the main asset is Jovovich, who projects just the right mix of chic bad-ass – her belly-button gets so much screen time, it deserved its own credit – with wardrobe and hair changing colour in synch with her mood [and, I believe, it’s far more likely nanotech will be used for this kind of thing than, say, curing cancer] When her co-vampires prepare to take her on, pointing out they’re just as fast and strong as she is, her response is, “Yeah, but are you as pissed-off as I am?”. It’s hard to imagine any other actress who’d come out with such a cheesy line and get away with it.

Indeed, much of the film is similarly-targeted: her ability to drive her bike up and down the walls of skyscrapers is dismissed with a one-line reference to a “gravity leveller”. What? Exactly. This airy dismissal is the film’s way of telling you it isn’t going to bother explaining everything, and you’d better deal with it. In that way, it is perhaps more like Aeon Flux than Aeon Flux actually was, and the body-count is similarly hefty to the original MTV shorts. However, the PG-13 certificate leaves it all but bloodless, giving the battles about as much sense of danger as a video game. And, oddly, every shot of Jovovich appears to be in soft-focus, for no apparent reason.

Otherwise, however, the action is excellent, CGI enhancing the impact of the fights. There is a certain sameness, it must be admitted – Violet faces multiple opponents and kicks their arses from here to next week – but Wimmer takes this basic theme and runs enough variations on it that it doesn’t become boring. Visually, it is hard to work out where the sets stop and the plentiful effects work begins (to some extent, that’s true of the supporting cast as well, who don’t have really have much to do, and may be avatars). Either way, it looks fairly good, given the budget: as noted, it isn’t going for photorealism, though the motorcycle chase did look more like an Xbox game. But even little things like disposable mobile phones, indicate genuine thought has gone into the edges. Perhaps more so than the plot, truth be told.

However, if you’re looking for a cool, entertaining flick, this is the best action heroine to come down the pipe since…well, probably the last Milla Jovovich film. While studio interference may have hampered Wimmer’s creative vision (half an hour is rumoured to have been cut out – here’s hoping for an uncut DVD), it’s certainly not deserving of the 8% fresh score at rottentomatoes.com: as previously mentioned here, hell hath no fury like critics shorn of their free screenings. And in contrast, after 2200 ratings in the IMDB, 25.6% of voters gave it 8+ out of 10, so don’t just take my word for it. I’ll close with some comments from other, brave, reviewers who “got” it like I did – albeit partly to prove my enjoyment of this was not just a psychotic episode…

Peter Sobczynski: “The pretenders will bitch about ridiculous and over-the-top while decrying it as mind-numbing junk while the real film fans – those who realize that the line between trash and art is not as large or as distinct as some would have you think – will relish it for those very same qualities.” Kushmeer Farakhan: “Probably the first great Popcorn movie of the year. It’s not brainless and it’s not highbrow, it merely is what it is. A really fun action movie.” Brian Gallagher: “If you want some insanely innovative action, with a futuristic twist, Ultraviolet is right up your bullet-dodging alley.”

Dir: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Cameron Bright, Nick Chinlund, William Fichtner