Mercenaries

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“Somewhat Expendable…”

Credit to The Asylum for getting off their ass and actually making a female version of The Expendables, while every other producer to touch the idea, has so far been nothing but talk. Certainly, it’s a cast to die for, with some of the most renowned action heroine names from both the past (Cynthia Rothrock, albeit kicking less butt than I’d like – but hell, she’s 57 – and with a hairstyle which has to be seen to be believed) and present (Zoë Bell, whom we will watch in absolutely anything. And occasionally have). The rest of the cast is an interesting mix of has-beens (Brigitte Nielsen) and names you’ll recognize from other genre entries (Kristanna Loken, Vivica A. Fox). It’s not a bad cast, though one wished, instead of Nicole Bilderback, they’d got someone like Rina Takeda or Yanin Mitananda. On the other hand, having an Asian that’s not good at martial arts is about as close as this gets to going counter to stereotype.

The scenario is basic but serves its purpose. The President’s daughter is kidnapped while on a trip to Kazakhstan by local warlord Ulrika (Nielsen). Her hatred of men leaves the best rescue solution to send in a team of women, hand-picked by CIA section chief or something Mona (Rothrock) from various prisons. There’s disgraced agent Raven (Fox), sharpshooter Kat (Loken), explosives expert Mei-Lin (Bilderback) and all-round bad-ass Clay (Bell), who is given the task of leading the group into the remote corner of Asia, infiltrating Ulrika’s lair and rescuing the “First Daughter”. They do so by faking Mei-Lin’s identity, claiming she’s the daughter of a rich industrialist, whom they’ve kidnapped, and offering her to Ulrika for the ransom possibilities. Of course, getting in is one thing: finding the President’s offspring, setting her loose, and then everyone escaping from the middle of nowhere back to the good old US of A is quite another.

Directed by Christopher Olen Ray, son of noted B-movie maestro Fred Olen Ray, easily the best thing about this are the characters. Nielsen may not have aged well, to put it mildly, but she’s still six foot tall, and looks like she could spit nails into floorboards. On the side of good, Bell and Fox, in particular, also capture the necessary spirit of marginally-restrained irritability, with Loken and Bilderback providing a little lightness for contrast. The banter between them is a bit of a mixed bag: I mean, “fucking George Clooney with a strap-on” sounds more like bizarre wish-fulfillment from writer Edward DeRuiter than anything a real woman might say. However, other moments do have a nice sense of authenticity, and you get the sense that each of the main characters have enough back-story to fuel an entire feature on their own. That’s in part because most of the actresses already are more than familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in action heroines. Even Bilderback, the least-known, was in the unaired pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so has at least a minor role in the history of our genre. It might have been fun if the script had played off their history more, riffing on Loken’s part in Terminator 3 in some way, or Fox’s in Kill Bill. After all, that’s why they’re all here, and I can’t think of a more loaded cast in GWG film history.

Unfortunately, what doesn’t work is the action. The most obvious problem is an excess of mediocre digital effects, particularly in the areas of muzzle flashes and blood. Few things work so well at taking the audience out of the moment, as when you start spotting things like that: generally, you are better off not having muzzle flashes at all, than doing them badly. But a much more egregious crime by Olen Ray is having a crown jewel like Zoë Bell, but taking her action scenes and running them through a cinematic wood-chipper. You need to do this kind of thing when you have an actress who can’t do her own action, and you need to hide a stunt double or to make them look better than they are. You do not need to do either when you have Bell: you stand back, point the camera in her direction – and might as well get some popcorn, since you’ll be there a while. What you get here instead, is like hiring Maria Callas, then having her lip-sync, and it’s aggravating as hell, with only a few flashes of the talent we know to be present. Compare and contrast the approach of Raze, which largely just got out of Bell’s way.

It’s a shame, because the film did so much right, from intent through to assembling a rock-solid cast, yet couldn’t finish off the process. The Asylum are notorious for their mockbusters e.g. Atlantic Rim, but this has enough fresh about it that it could have been one of the best films in their catalog (and, I should know because, dammit, I’ve seen far more of them than most people!). Hopefully, it’s still successful enough to merit a sequel, perhaps under someone with a better handle on shooting the action.

Dir: Christopher Douglas Olen Ray
Star: Zoë Bell, Brigitte Nielsen, Kristanna Loken, Vivica A. Fox

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