Despite its title, Prisoner Maria: The Movie has a different set of influences altogether. First up heroine Maria is only a prisoner for a few minutes; the most obvious reference point is Nikita, and it’s not alone. As documented elsewhere, Luc Besson’s film has spawned a TV series, one remake, and a host of unofficial clones, all on the theme of a female criminal forced to become a government assassin. This tape is not the first Prisoner Maria adventure, and things have changed somewhat over time: her bosses have become kinder, and no longer use death-threats against her child to convince Maria they’re serious. She also gets a car to ship her around, rather than having to sprint back to beat their deadline: run, Maria, run! Now, she does the hits merely in return for access to her son, but it’s more poignant and altruistic than in Nikita, which was largely driven by pure self-interest.
Given the ongoing nature of the series, the set-up and background are understandably sketchy. However, it’s enough, and Maria (Noriko Aota) is swiftly hunting a serial killer who is a potential embarrassment to the government, since he’s a politician’s son. Were it this simple. it’d be a very short film – even as is, it’s only 75 minutes – and so she’s soon embroiled with the Taiwanese mafia, a nosy cop, and a particularly mad doctor, whose hobbies include mind-control, white slavery, organ bootlegging and saying typically mad-scientist things, such as “I am God! What’s wrong with God changing the minds of people?” It’s not giving much away to hint that a bad end awaits.
Based on a manga by Shigeru Tsuchiyama and Shintaro Iba, this is cheerfully shallow stuff, although the occasional sequences of abuse may have more liberal viewers twitching — the depiction of the serial killer at work is unlikely to survive any British release. Aota wears a selection of tight dresses and short skirts, and performs her action scenes creditably enough, though the likes of Michelle Yeoh will not be losing any sleep. In addition, some thought has clearly gone into the story, which is perhaps where it wins out most convincingly over Scorpion’s Revenge.
For the core of exploitation is countering the inevitable budgetary limitations. Usually it’s through something like nudity, which has been described as the cheapest special effect. However, just as cheap is imagination, and it tends to be this which lifts the better kind of trash cinema above the pack. When Scorpion’s Revenge leaves the familiar confines of the prison setting, it runs out of ideas, while Prisoner Maria does its best to keep the audience interested throughout. It also boast a stronger core concept, and that’s why it has the potential for a series, whereas Scorpion’s Revenge fails to get through one film – as for a series…I think not.
[A version of this article originally appeared in Manga Max]
Dir: Shuji Kataoka
Star: Noriko Aota, Tetsuo Kurata, Koji Shimizu