Supreme Sanction

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Alias kicks back with a martini and some valium.”

Director Terlesky starred in one of my favourite guilty pleasures, Deathstalker II, but this shows he still has much to learn about directing and, particularly, scripting. There just isn’t enough going on here to sustain attention, with too many scenes taking twice as long as necessary. Swanson plays Jenna, assassin for a government counter-terrorist agency which is now creating incidents in order to get increased funding. She switches sides and protects TV journalist Jordan McNamara (Dukes), whom she has been ordered to kill – her handler Dalton (Madsen) must now take her out.

Subsequent events have given this 1999 film a creepily prescient air, and I’m always up for a good conspiracy. But neither Swanson nor Madsen ever provide the necessary energy, which we know the latter at least can deliver (though he gets the best moment, shooting the journalist, then offering him a BandAid). Faison makes a mark as Marcus, Jenna’s gadget man who avoids the usual stereotypes, but Dukes is so irritatingly whiny, it’s hard to see why Jenna chose to save him.

There are moments proving the ideas have potential, such as Jenna and Marcus disguising themselves to penetrate the enemies’ base. More of this invention would have helped enliven what is instead just marginally acceptable entertainment. The climax also relies on chief villain Ron Perlman willingly confessing all to his “helpless” captive. Guess he must never have seen any Bond films.

Dir: John Terlesky
Star: Kristy Swanson, Michael Madsen, David Dukes, Donald Adeosun Faison

Retroactive

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“Trippy time-travel done with almost enough energy to cover the plot holes.”

It’s not often I criticise a film for too much explanation, but Retroactive might have been better off with more hand-waving. I’ll explain later; first, the plot. Travis plays Karen, a police negotiator who just screwed up badly; driving down South she ends up hitching a ride with Frank (Belushi) and his abused wife Rayanne (Whirry). Frank is a psycho, and Karen ends up sheltering in a secret lab where time-travel experiments are going on – she ends up with another chance to deal with Frank, only to discover this second attempt may not be an improvement…

This is a nifty little sleeper that seemed to get buried when Orion Pictures went belly-up. It deserved a better fate, with everyone turning in sterling performances, even if Karen’s reaction to being shot back in time is too calm and understated! Belushi makes a fine, creepy redneck, a sense of tension springing from your feeling he is capable of anything at any time. The deviations with each attempt are marked and cleverly written, and the ending is satisfactorily imperfect.

Our qualms were largely because, unlike Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day, which made no attempt to explain what was happening, here there’s just enough logic to be unsatisfying. The “rules” are clearly important – for example, do time-travellers keep their memories? – yet are inadequately laid out. We spent the last 15 minutes with furrowed brows, trying to see if it made sense. It may, or may not, but either way was an unwelcome diversion in an otherwise pleasant surprise.

Dir: Louis Morneau
Star: Kylie Travis, Jim Belushi, Shannon Whirry, Frank Whaley

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, by Laurell K. Hamilton

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“Buffy’s all grown-up and raising the dead…and having an ever-increasing amount of sex.”

This long-running series, with the 11th entry due in 2003, takes place in an alternative reality where vampires have equal rights as citizens. Heroine Anita Blake is a state-appointed executioner (“when good bloodsuckers…go bad…“) in St. Louis, who takes out the undead trash and also has a day job – actually, more of a night job – raising zombies. Oh, did I forget to mention them? There’s also were-creatures, ghouls, and pretty much the whole range of supernatural monsters.

It’s a grand, richly-detailed universe in which to play, and the first few novels are highly recommended, fast-paced action romps. Blake is a great character, who takes no bull from anyone, yet has vulnerabilities which are endearing (such as her stuffed penguin collection) and add depth. The first one alone will probably leave you wondering why in the hell any studio ever bothered with Anne Rice.

Unfortunately, beyond about the fourth or fifth, Hamilton loses the plot – literally. A truly bizarre love-triangle is set up between Anita, Richard the werewolf, and Jean-Claude, the walking cliche (all French accent and sensuous gaze) who is the local master vampire. By about the third volume of this, I was rolling my eyes and urging her to fuck one and kill the other, just to get it over with. If I wanted supernatural porn, I’d read it – instead, I’ll just quietly pine for the action-centred heroine of the earlier entries, and wait for Hollywood to catch up. Salma Hayek for Anita Blake?

By: Laurell K. Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin-Puttnam (US), Orbit (UK)

The Terrorist

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“Not your average Bollywood film – some fabulous moments, and some really tedious ones.”

Loosely based on the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, this focuses on Malli (Dharker), a 19-year old guerilla chosen as a suicide bomber. With flashbacks to earlier events, it covers the journey to the killing zone, where she awaits her target and her destiny.

Right from the start, where she shoots a traitor in the throat, we realise Malli is not your average teenager; she has lost all her family, and has nothing left but the cause. She isn’t the only one – perhaps the most chilling sequence is an ‘interview’ for the position of “thinking bomb”, where the candidates beg for the honour of dying. However, when she leaves the moral certainty of camp, she begins to have doubts. Perhaps there’s more to life than death; it’s hard to destroy yourself when you feel someone would miss you. In particular, the farmer with whom she stays (a charming, voluble performance from Parmeshwaran) embraces this taciturn stranger without qualm and leaves Malli with a dilemma.

A lot of the weight of the film has to be carried by Dharker, who is in almost every frame. She has a definite presence; however, staring at the camera is hardly a stretch. Throughout this, there are frequent moments which make you gasp, but Malli’s silence leaves a huge gap in the film, and there are just too many scenes which are beautifully photographed but otherwise appear pointless. The ending, too, is distinctly unsatisfying on all but a basic level. It does give an understanding of fanatical psychology: post 9/11, that’s an area deserving of coverage.

In the Line of Duty IV

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“A thinly connected series of action set-pieces…but what set-pieces!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a HK film with more action; it seems that every five minutes, along comes another breathtaking fight or stunt sequence. Of course, when you have a master at the helm (Yuen did the fights for The Matrix), you expect a little more, but this is fabulous, even by his standards.

Donnie Yen is perhaps the most under-rated martial artist of our generation, and watching him here, it’s hard to see why he hasn’t become a major star, rather than lurking in (effective) supporting roles in Blade 2 and Highlander: Endgame. For speed, agility and skill, his fights are almost without equal, and most female co-stars would be overshadowed. Fortunately, Cynthia Khan, though occasionally clearly doubled, does more than enough to keep on the same lap – the fight atop, alongside, and dangling from the front of, a speeding ambulance is eyepoppingly extreme, while her aerial battle around a lift shaft is also worthy of mention.

The story is clearly secondary to all this, but for the record, Khan and Yen are cops, one from Hong Kong, one from America, who team up to find a witness to a murder. Double-dealing and twists abound, though most are so obvious, you suspect they were just waiting for cast members to get out of hospital. :-) Interesting to see a foreign view of American cops – even Yen is a barely-controlled psychonaut. Khan is more sympathetic, but characterisation never goes beyond the most basic. However, this is an action movie, and as such, it’s near-perfect, with invention, energy and hardcore guts to spare from all concerned.

Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping
Star: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen, Michael Wong, Yuen Yat Choh

Freeze Me

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“A chilly tale of rape, revenge and household appliances.”

Five years after a vicious gang-rape, Chihiro has somewhat recovered, with a new apartment, job and boyfriend. But one of the attackers turns up on her doorstep, with a video of the assault, and threatens to destroy her new life. He moves in. Worse yet, his colleagues are on their way. What’s a girl to do? If you answered “kill the bastard, stuff him in her freezer, then wait for the other two rapists”… you’ve clearly seen this before.

This film is often difficult to watch, on several levels. On the down side, Chihiro is such a passive victim, it’s hard to feel much initial sympathy for her – letting the guy who raped you stay in your flat with barely a whimper of protest, is so damn… wussy as possibly to turn you off her character. It might have made more plot sense to have her kill the first one, then she’d have good reason not to seek help when the second moved in. Though when you see the attack, it’s so brutal, nasty and vicious (exactly how rape should be depicted), that her post-traumatic shock is more explicable.

The change that comes over her as a result makes for intriguing viewing – the title is entirely apt, since she gradually transforms into something every bit as cold as her enemies, and is finally so blase as to order another fridge while the intended occupant is playing video-games in the same room. By the end, it’s hard to say who is more dangerous to know; at least the rapists know they’re doing wrong. Credit to Inoue – better known as a model in Japan – for a creepy performance, and to Ishii for pulling no punches, an approach which rescues the film after a wobbly start.

Dir: Takashi Ishii
Star: Harumi Inoue, Shingo Tsurumi, Shunsuke Matsuoka, Kazuki Kitamura

The Black Angel

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“Promising start to gangster revenge, but goes off rails badly.”

The first half of this is quite excellent. A young girl, Ikko, daughter of a Yakuza boss, sees her parents murdered on the orders of her step-sister but is rescued by the Black Angel (Takashima), a female assassin, and escapes to America. 14 years later, she returns (Hazuki), calling herself the Black Angel and starts wreaking revenge on those responsible – who retaliate by calling in the real Black Angel. The potential here is huge, not least because the original is now an alcoholic junkie, at one harrowing point reduced to licking drugs from broken glass.

Then it all goes horribly wrong for the viewer. The dividing line is the eight-minute, one-take shot of Ikko wandering around a building trying to escape while being taunted by thugs. It is incredibly pointless, overlong, and sucks the energy out of the movie like a vampire. After that, it just collapses in on itself like a balloon, and has very little more of interest to offer – both Chris and I dozed off at various points. There’s much pointing of guns at each other, and one final twist, but it was nothing you won’t see coming, and of absolutely no significance by that stage, since we had long ceased to care. A spectacular crash.

Dir: Takashi Ishii
Star: Riona Hazuki, Reiko Takashima, Kippei Shiina, Yoshinori Yamaguchi

Bandidas

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“How the West was Wo(ma)n…”

Let us make no mistake about this, this is a frothy confection of a film, which is not intended to be taken seriously; to do so, would be a serious mistake. The closest parallel here is probably to think of it as a distaff version of Shanghai Noon, with an odd couple teaming up for fun ‘n’ frolics in the Old West. Robber baron Tyler Jackson (Yoakam) comes to Mexico to take away land from the locals so a railroad can be built. In the process, he kills the fathers of both farm-girl Maria (Cruz) and rich-girl Sara (Salma), so he can take their property and bank respectively. To get revenge, each lady independently decides to rob the same bank at the same time, and are forced to team-up; their widely-disparate characters initially cause friction, but they eventally come to respect each other, after being trained by retired robber Bill Buck (Sam Shephard).

When they start their campaign, Jackson brings in a specialist in the new ‘scientific method’ of criminal investigation, Quentin (Zahn), to help track down the bandidas. However, after discovering Sara’s father was poisoned, heis convinced by the pair that he is actually working for the wrong side, and comes across to join them. The latest security measures are defeated – with the aid of a pair of ice-skates! – and as a result a train is loaded with the Mexican government’s gold reserve, to ship it to safety in Mexico. The bandidas resolve to take the cargo, but Jackson and his gang are waiting for them…as is Quentin’s fiancée…

This was co-written by Luc Besson: he is the engine-room of European cinema, listed as a producer of no less than 60 titles over the past five years on the IMDB. He likely deserves a place in the Girls With Guns hall of fame, having directed Nikita and The Messenger, given Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman their action-debuts in The Fifth Element and Leon respectively, worked as an uncredited co-producer on Haute Tension, and now delivers this. It came up in response to a request from the two leads, who’ve wanted to work together for a long time, and he handed the script to two Norwegians, making their feature debut [but with a lot of commercial experience].

However, there’s no doubt that it’s the leading ladies who make this one click, right from the first scene together, where Sara confronts Maria, who has snuck in to the house to argue with Sara’s father about the ongoing land-grab. The bickering between the two, which continues, in an increasingly friendly way, through the entire film. Maria snipes at Sara because the latter can’t fire a gun to save her life – in a beautiful touch, she gets terrible hiccups when she tries; Sara taunts Maria for her lack of education.

The two also argue over who is the best kisser, notably in a scene where they are dressed as Paris showgirls, and are trying to extract information from Quentin, who is tied to the bed. And Steve Zaun was actually paid to take part? ;-) That’s about as far as the film goes, sexually speaking; much cleavage, but no actual nudity. A fondness for the heroines splashing around in water, especially early on, and the above-mentioned comedic seduction scene, is about as close as we get to exploitation. That news may disappoint some readers, but it really wouldn’t be in keeping with the overall tone of the movie, which is light-hearted and firmly PG-13 rated, despite lesbian scuttlebutt which circulated afte a press conference where Penelope (gasp!) touched Salma’s butt.

What did disappoint me was the action. I expected more from Besson, who helped give us such gems as The Transporter and District B-13, as well as the titles mentioned above, though a couple of moments stand out. There’s a bravura slow-motion scene in the final battle – bullets, knives, bodies and debris fly in a single shot, the camera panning back and forth to capture the carnage. But, the most amazing part is seeing a horse, with a rider on its back, climb a ladder. This was apparently a combination of training (the horse, with a stunt rider, walked up a specially-made set of stairs) and CGI work by Parisian FX house Macguff, to replace the stairs with a ladder, add dust and bounce, etc. It’s a throwaway moment, in a throwaway film, but is worthy of note, and applause.

That may be perhaps down to the leads’ lack of experience: Cruz’s only real brush with the action genre was Sahara, Hayek has more background (working with Robert Rodriguez helps there), but neither of them would appear to be looking to make a name for themselves with their work here. A sequel is hinted at by the ending; however, that this $30m production went all but straight to video in the US and notched only $18m overseas would seem to rule this out. One wonders why, for a film set in Mexico and with two Hispanic leads, why they didn’t speak Spanish; one assumes Besson, with his eye on the international market, went for the more commercial English, even though Cruz seems slightly ill-at-ease thee.

These qualms are relatively minor, and if not the all-out action fest I was hoping for, it’s certainly among the best Westernettes of recent years. This is not a genre which has been kind to action heroines in the past, including such bombs – justifiable or not – as Bad Girls and The Quick and the Dead, as well as less high-profile turkeys as Gang of Roses. Bandidas is nowhere in the same league, and if survives almost entirely on the charisma and energy of Cruz and Hayek, that’s by itself is something which most movies would like to have. If you can certainly argue that to some extent this is a vanity project, here, I’d be very hard pushed to call vanity a sin.

Dir: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam

The Arena (2001)

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arena2001A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, it’s a case of “good news, bad news”; some of the changes are improvements, while others are perhaps not as well thought-out. Firstly, McDougal and Dergan fall some way short of Grier and Markov – while I may have criticised their fighting abilities, at least they both had more than adequate screen presence. McDougal and Dergan are, first and foremost, Playboy playmates, and were clearly employed for this reason, rather than any acting ability. Though, as in the original, the quantity of skin on view is actually pretty limited – this is even more surprising, given our heroines’ background.

Bekmambetov’s directorial style is very stylish and flashy, probably too much so; you’ll frequently find yourself wishing he would keep the camera still and pointing in one direction, as well as laying off on the whizzy optical effects. There are moments when it does work, but particularly in the arena battles, it looks as if they are trying to distract the viewer from inadequacies that would otherwise be painfully obvious.

On the plus side, tweaks to the story-line have probably been for the better. The setting is moved to a far outpost of the Empire, which renders the final revolt much more plausible. The focus of the film is also shifted, with more emphasis being given to the doomed romance between slave-trainer Septimus and one of his gladiatorettes. This did exist in the 70’s version, but was really more of a sideplot; here, it gets boosted and is actually quite effective, not least because the actor playing Septimus (Mambetov) has an amazing face, full of character. The climax now sees local governor Timarchus pitted against his own gladiators, obviously inspired by Russell Crowe and Joaquim Phoenix’s duel.

The Russian locations, mainly near St. Petersburg, work well for the most part; the central arena is dropped in the middle of a blasted forest, leaving it looking like a crashed spaceship. Actually, that’s perhaps the point, in that the Romans were, to the locals, an alien race with gladiatorial combat and other bizarre customs. But by most accounts, conditions on the shoot were pretty basic – Karen Macdougal’s comments on the DVD are especially revealing here, not least where she says she never wants to go back to the country! Apart from the two heroines, the rest of the cast (including the wonderfully-named Severina Kamugisha Kemirimbe) are local, and consequently their performances are dubbed, not badly, but one suspects towards mediocrity.

Overall, this remake isn’t a disaster, and stands on its own without too much difficulty. The problem is, that if you’ve seen the original, the new one doesn’t bring all that much to the party, save for some hyperactive camerawork. We can’t really blame Macdougal and Durgan – they received precisely four hours training for their swordfighting – but you can only wonder how much of the film’s obvious potential might have been realised, if Corman had hired actresses with actual combat skills.

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Viktor Verzbitsky, Anatoly Mambetov

The Arena (1974)

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arenaThe tagline for this was “Black slave, white slave”, a less than subtle nod to the fact that it reunited Grier and Markov, the star of Corman’s jailbreak movie from the previous year, Black Mama, White Mama. The similarities of this film to it are obvious: two women from opposing backgrounds forced, through adversity, to unite, respect eventually growing between…etc, etc. Hell, there’s even a shower-scene – although since this dates back to pre-shower days, it should strictly be called a bucket-of-cold-water scene.

Here, Grier and Markov play Mamawi and Bodicia respectively, slaves captured and put to work in a provincial gladiatorial arena – at first working the concessions (or Roman equivalent thereof), but when the owner discovers the appeal of women fighting, he sends them into the arena. They eventually rebel against the authorities, and help each other in an escape attempt that puts their lives at risk.

Not quite as ludicrously anachronous as it sounds – there actually were female gladiators – the small budget is helped immeasurably by shooting in Cinecitta, Italy’s main studio, which no doubt provided sets, costumes and props. There is a good feel for the callous barbarity of the time, which contrasts well with a touching love story between the trainer and one of the slaves. Once you get beyond the shower scene, it’s surprisingly restrained – while there’s no shortage of nudity, it is less gratuitous that you might expect.

The leading actresses are both good in their roles, but their fighting skills leave too much to be desired. It’s difficult to see how they could have won over the crowd to their side, as is required by the plot. Once they escape the arena, things do perk up a little on this front, but it remains not a movie to recommend for action. This is not least because, while it was shot in ‘Scope, even the DVD is pan-and-scanned. It’s thus rare that you get to see both participants on the screen at the same time.

Despite this, it’s rarely boring and never unwatchable, with decent production values and everyone putting in sufficient effort to make it worthwhile. Can’t help wondering if Sid Lawrence’s fey Roman Priscium, had some kind of influence on Joaquim Phoenix’s performance in Gladiator. Certainly, this film was among the final twitches of the sword-and-sandal genre, which would go into hibernation, to await rejuvenation courtesy of Ridley Scott.

Reports suggest director Carver was largely helped out by Joe D’Amato, who’d go on to make both video-nasties and porno films. Perhaps the most famous name involved, however, is editor Joe (Gremlins) Dante, another one of Roger Corman’s alumni. Pam Grier, of course, would become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, but let’s not hold that against her. Markov, on the other hand, would make only one more movie, the barely known There Is No 13.

Dir: Steve Carver
Star: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller