Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

Maggie Marvel

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“Juggling family and career can be murder.”

maggiemarvelMaggie Marvel (Beretta) is a single mom, with all the issues that implies. She has to try and juggle work with raising young daughter, Samantha (Katherine Brennan), on her own. But complicating matters enormously, is that work in this case is operating as an assassin for criminal kingpin Dutch – who also happens to be Maggie’s estranged father, who sent her away after his wife (and thus, Maggie’s mother) tried to poison him. Maggie was raised instead by Dixie Brown (Barron), who also works for Dutch as a killer. For he believes women are better at the job, and though he employs men, such as Bobby Shea (Dan Brennan) and his brothers, they are kept for non-lethal work. However, this line gets blurred as Bobby has fallen for Dixie, and his request that Maggie work with him on a bank robbery – hoping to make Dixie jealous – kicks off a series of events that threaten to destroy Maggie, her family and the entire crime organization.

It’s a good concept, and is helped enormously by Beretta, who was even more awesome in Hell Fire, even if her Australian accent requires some particularly convoluted explanations. Indeed, the story-line here in general is sometimes insanely complex, which explains why this runs 108 minutes: in some ways, I suspect less plot might well have been more successful here. Could certainly have done with less of the aspects which, particularly in the early going, occasionally make this feel like it’s a fetish tape for glove enthusiasts… Instead, writer-director-costar Brennan (who cast two of his own daughters in this, as well as it being produced by his wife Jean, keeping it a family affair) could perhaps have expanded on the single mother aspects, Maggie using her skills to deal with bitchy PTA rivals, recalcitrant teachers, etc., in a way similar to Serial Mom.

However, there are still a number of positives, not just Beretta. Most of the performances are solid, and the technical aspects are better than I was expecting – it’s often indistinguishable from a “real” movie. The comedic aspects work particularly well, in particular those surrounding the bank job. It involves both a vault which can only be opened by tap-dancing the combination, and also the impersonation of a German princess by someone who is neither a princess, nor can speak German. This kind of dry wit is endearing, and plays into the strengths of Beretta and the rest of the cast. The action is plentiful, though appears mostly constructed in the editing room rather than out of the participants’ obvious skills. It’s something of a shame the movie doesn’t build to the expected face-off between Maggie and Dixie, instead diverting into one of the subplots, this one involving an actress hired to play the part of Maggie, because… Well. I’m sure there was an explanation somewhere. Like much of the film, probably best not to sweat such details, instead just appreciating a strong lead and the quirky independence here.

Dir: Dan Brennan
Star: Selene Beretta, Dan Brennan, Katherine Barron, Dianna Brennan

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This works rather better as historical fiction than an action novel, and is set in the late 15th century, when the province of Brittany was fighting to remain independent from France. Such high-level political machinations are far above the heads of most inhabitants, who are busy with everyday survival. At the beginning of the book, this includes the heroine, 17-year-old Ismae, who is more concerned about her upcoming, unwanted marriage – more of a sale by her father, to be honest – to a brutal husband. Rescue comes in an unexpected form, as she is whisked away to the Convent of St. Mortain, devoted to one of the pagan gods, absorbed into the Catholic faith as a saint. Mortain’s field is death, and Ismae, who has a natural immunity to poison, is trained in his dark arts. She becomes a tool used by the Mother Superior – albeit for political ends as much as religious ones.

After a couple of training missions, the main thread of the book is her presence at the court of the young Duchess of Brittany, where she is sent as the “cousin” to her adviser, Duval. Quotes used advisedly, since the general assumption is that she’s Duval’s mistress. Know I mentioned “high-level political machinations” in the previous paragraph? Cue these, in spades, as the future of Brittany hinges largely on to whom the Duchess is married. [It was only right at the end that I realized the Duchess had barely turned thirteen, rendering some of the previous events significantly more creepy] There are any number of factions, each with their own agenda, and willing to go to any lengths to make sure they’re achieved; figuring out and negotiating the maze of loyalties and deception is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I read this not long after The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, which depicts events in a similarly chaotic period, just across the English Channel and around the same time. That didn’t have enough action to qualify here, but did get me in the appropriate Middle Ages mindset. It did share a supernatural element, with its heroine being able to affect the weather, for example. Here, Ismae’s main talent is her ability to see the mark of Mortain on those the saint has targeted for death. But this is problematic when it conflicts with the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior, and the main thrust of the heroine’s development is her transition away from an indoctrinated cult-head, as she realizes she might be being manipulated and used, almost as much as in her peasant days.

Part of this is – and you can insert a heavy sigh, complete with eye-rolling here – her blossoming feelings for Duval. It’s clear, virtually from the first time he appears, that he is the Designated Love Interest, and it’s only a matter of time before our hard-nosed assassin will inevitably be making googly eyes at him. It’s certainly the case that, once she and he arrive at the castle, the action largely grinds to a halt, being replaced by much skulking around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. There’s much more suspicion than assassination, outside of one incident at the banquet, where she saves the Duchess from violent death at the hands of a mime – okay, it’s more one of a strolling troupe of players, but I find the idea of a killer mime just too amusing to discard. [Also: while Ismae does wield a crossbow, it’s considerably smaller than the one pictured on the cover!]

I did like the meshing of old and new religious beliefs, and must confess, this certainly didn’t feel like a 550-page tome [one advantage of e-books is their lack of weight!], since I ripped through it in not much more than a week, which is lightning fast by my standards. But the book did suffer from incomplete subplots, such as the psycho fellow novitiate, who is also present in the Duchess’s castle, only to vanish entirely from the story without explanation. Perhaps this is something which will be explained in a future installment. Having paid 99 cents for this on special offer, I guess I can’t complain; but I likely wouldn’t be inclined to pay the $9.99 currently being demanded for the second part of the trilogy.

Author: Robin LaFevers 
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, available through Amazon, both as a printed book and an e-book.

Here’s the trailer. Yep, TIL that books nowadays have trailers…

Morgan

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Hannah goes Haywire.”

I watched this twice: once on an airplane flight from London, and once after I returned, and I think I preferred the second viewing. For the ending here, if not perhaps what you’d call a “twist”, does provide a piece of information about the lead character, that will change the way you watch her performance in subsequent viewings. It’s something I appreciate, and also goes a long way to explain what would otherwise potentially be flaws in the plot. Said character is Lee Weathers (Mara), a “risk-management consultant” for a tech company, who is sent to a remote outpost, literally buried in the heart of the countryside.

Its inhabitants have spent more than five years working on developing an artificial life-form; after multiple failed attempts, their current creation, Morgan (Taylor-Joy) had appeared to be doing better. Initially, crafted with talents such as accelerated growth, she (or, as Lee stresses, “it”) is now developing unexpected talents such as precognition. However, a violent streak is also making itself known, culminating in Morgan stabbing one of the researchers in the eye. This is where Weathers comes in, seeking to assess the viability of the project, as well as whether it should continue or not. And if not? Well, as the one-eyed researcher, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, bluntly tells her, “You’re a goddamn assassin.” But Morgan’s creators won’t take that lying down; nor will Morgan her/itself.

Mara captures just the right degree of cold, passionless disinterest, and is helped out by a very solid supporting cast. This includes Leigh as well as Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti and even action heroine icon, Michelle Yeoh, albeit in a non-action role, playing the head of the project. After the opening scene, depicting the eye-stabbing from the POV of the complex’s security cameras, we already know everything is going to kick off, it’s just a matter of when. Given this, the first half could be considered too slow; we really don’t need to be introduced to everyone, because what matters is the Weathers-Morgan dynamic, perhaps with a side of the latter’s closest “relative”, Dr. Menser (Leslie, not without her own action cred, having played Ygritte in Game of Thrones – like GoT, this movie was filmed in Northern Ireland).

The arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Giamatti), the man in charge of carrying out Morgan’s psych evaluation, signals the start of this inevitable escalation of hostilities, and the pace certainly kicks up from that point forward. It’s this aspect which separates it in tone from the similarly-themed Splice, a more horror-oriented story, also about an artificial life-form gone awry. I note the stunt personnel here included Zara Phythian, a British action actress, whose star appears to be on the rise. Despite the loaded cast – it helps having Ridley Scott as a producer! – this was relatively cheap to make, at $8 million, and was somewhat unjustly overlooked on its cinema release. Even if it probably does take two viewings to appreciate it.

Dir: Luke Scott
Star: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie

Assassination

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“Burning Japanese.”

assassinationNot, in any way, to be confused with The Assassin, despite both being distributed in the United States by Well Go, this is substantially more entertaining, being a nicely put-together period actioner that, in some ways, reminded me of Inglourious Bastards. In 1933, Korea was occupied by Japanese forces, against which a slew of liberation movements fought. As part of the rebellion, plans are afoot to assassinate Kawaguchi Mamoru, the local Japanese governor and Kang In-gook (Lee G-y), a Korean tycoon who has collaborated with the occupiers. Tasked with leading a small group to carry out the mission is Ahn Ok-yun (Jun), a lethal sniper; she’s bailed out of military prison where she has been sent for “accidentally” shooting her superior. Yeom Seok-Jin (Lee J-j) is overseeing the operation, but is actually working for the Japanese, and hires an independent hit-man (Ha), known as “Hawaiian Pistol” to sabotage it. Making things infinitely more complex, it turns out that Kang’s daughter is actually the twin sister of Ahn, the women having been separated and brought up, oblivious of each other’s existence.

There’s a very good sense of time here, with a lot of money having clearly been spent on sets, costumes, motor vehicles and everything else necessary to create Korea of the time. The action sequences are slickly put-together, without ever devolving into excess; to be honest, they’re probably a bit more plausible than the plot, where the “twin” aspect leads, in the final reel, to some developments that pass beyond incredible to uncredible. It is also more than somewhat relentless in its anti-Japanese message, bordering on the xenophobic, albeit perhaps for understandable reasons, and at 140 minutes, feels a good 20 too long. That said, there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, in the performances and complex plot, which ends up spanning nearly 40 years from prologue to epilogue, as well as the glorious set-piece battles. The pick of these is probably the group’s first attempt as assassinating their targets, diverting them to a gas station and into a killing zone on their way out of the city, but equally as impressive is a gun-battle when a wedding devolves into a siege situation [which explains the image, above right!]

I was trying to figure out why Jun was familiar, and eventually realized she had starred in the live-action adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire. While that was largely forgettable, she has become a huge star in her native Korea, both in film and on television. This is certainly more impressive than Blood, and she is certainly the emotional heart of the film, as well as providing some of its most memorable moments, such as when she pauses on the way to begin her mission, to take out a pair of Japanese machine-gun nests, with a grand total of four bullets. This kind of swift characterization demonstrates her character’s competence early, and the film even avoids the obvious desire for a romantic subplot. Despite the obvious issues noted above, the positives are good enough to outweigh them, and overall, this provides an enjoyable couple of hours of wartime derring-do.

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Star: Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ha Jung-woo, Lee Geung-young

Guns For Hire

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“Fires nothing but blanks.”

gunsforhireThe first spectacular misfire of 2016, I was hoping for much more, than a story that could only be claimed to make any sense if it was entirely the ravings of a mentally-deranged idiot. Beatle (Hicks) is a tow-truck driver/assassin – yes, that’s what it says on her business cards – who rescues Athena (Carradine) from her abusive ex-boyfriend, Kyle (Mendelsohn). In revenge, he sets deranged psychopath Bruce (Morgan) on their trail, and he is prepared to stop at nothing to bring them back to his boss. Meanwhile, Athena hires Beatle to kill her, but they have to hang out until the change in Athena’s life-insurance policy, making Beatle the beneficiary, is officially completed. Except, is Beatle actually a killer at all? For her therapist seems convinced otherwise. The entire saga unfolds in flashback, as Beatle is being interrogated by a detective, who has found the videotape of Beatle’s infomercial for her hitwoman business. Certainly sounds like an unusual set-up, and potentially interesting, right?

Wrong. It’s an overly talky and thoroughly unconvincing slab of pretentious nonsense, which is nowhere near as smart as it thinks, and completely fails to provide the “Nonstop action!” proclaimed on the cover. Both Beatle (seriously, what kind of name is that?) and Athena are the kind of characters you would actively seek to avoid if you met either of them in real life, and the film does nothing to make spending 75 minutes in their company any more attractive. Perhaps it might have worked, if the story had done more with the question of whether or not Beatle is an assassin only in her own mind, following the American Psycho approach. That would, at least, have tied in with the final twist, which basically screws up everything you’ve endured to that point, and throws it out the window. Thanks a bunch, for wasting the audience’s time, Ms. Robinson.

There’s a subplot involving Beatle and a stripper, which seems present only to provide some gratuitous lesbian titillation for undemanding male viewers, and – speaking as the apparent target audience – doesn’t even work on that level. Instead, you’re left to cope with performances which range from the passable (Morgan does his best, in limited screen time) through the gratuitously excessive (Tony Shalhoub turns up as a DMV employee, for no reason) to the spectacularly incompetent (I’ll spare the name of the “actor” “playing” the “detective” – all three sets of quotes used advisedly). Add dialogue which, I can only presume, must have sounded an awful lot better in writer-director Robinson’s head than it plays on screen, and you’ve got something that fizzles an enormous amount more than it sizzles. As the first of our “coming in 2016” films to be reviewed, it feels more like a New Year’s Day hangover than any kind of shiny, positive resolution.

Dir: Donna Robinson
Star: Ever Carradine, Michele Hicks, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ben Mendelsohn

Journal of a Contract Killer

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“The hits just keep on coming…”

journalStephanie (Powell) had been an assassin for the Italian Mafia, but had abandoned that life and settled down in London with her daughter. Years later, she is shocked to see her former lover, Alessandro (Canuso) show up at her job, and even more so when she gets an order she can’t refuse from her old employer, Franco (Gambino) – to kill Alessandro. Despite some qualms, not least how the family will react to her taking out one of their own, Stephanie carrier out the mission. But soon after, she finds herself being watched by the enigmatic Sam (Leese), who says he is there to protect her. Is that really the case, or does he have an entirely different purpose?

Maylam directed one of our favourite B-movies of all time, the post-apocalyptic monster flick, Split Second, starring Rutger Hauer. This isn’t anywhere near as good, though still made for an okay ninety minutes of entertainment. I think the main issue is Powell: not so much for her performance as such, more the stylistic choice made for it. I think the director and actress were going for a “dead inside” vibe, portraying Stephanie as someone who has had all emotion wrung out of them, through years of dealing death on a professional basis. It’s difficult to pull that kind of thing off while still retaining any sense of a likable character; Jean Reno in Leon is an example of it done well, but the results here come across much more as a flat monotone. There’s only one scene where Powell gets to let rip with unrestrained emotion, and it’s undeniably the film’s most effective sequence; you wish there had been more of this.

The story-line is well constructed, however, and it doesn’t pull its punches; there isn’t what you’d call a happy ending for anyone involved. Probably another misstep to claim the movie is inspired by true events, for that’s a label abused so badly for over four decades [at least since the days of Texas Chainsaw which, while inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein, utterly does not fulfill its poster claim: “what happened is true”], everyone I know immediately rolls their eyes and refuses to believe a word of it, whether actually the case or not.  In its favour, the film does remain restrained in terms of her abilities, with no sense of Stephanie being turned into some kind of superheroine. Instead, everything she does is plausible, though I’d like to have seen them devote more time to her shift from “hooker for the mob” to “hit-woman for the mob,” which seems sudden and jarring, involving little more than a random assassination of an innocent bystander. However, this restraint does perhaps lead to a lack of memorable moments; there’s not a surfeit of action either, despite what the trailer below wants you to think. Just go in expecting something low key, and you’ll be okay.

Dir: Tony Maylam
Star: Justine Powell, Adam Leese, Jake Canuso, Marco Gambino

Serena and the Ratts

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“Look what the RATTs dragged in…”

serenaA somewhat jumbled mix, this sounds like a film about a punk-rock band but certainly isn’t. It actually starts off playing as a WW2 version of The Terminator, then morphs in the middle to become a mongrel crossbreed of Leon and Nikita, more or less abandoning the whole time-travel aspect entirely. The reasons for this do eventually become clear, yet still leave you feeling like the first third of the film was an entire waste of effort. To begin in the middle, Serena (Marie, who as you can see from the left, even looks like early Anne Parillaud) is a young woman, plucked off the streets by the Boss (Thomson) and raised in his image to become an assassin. She and her boyfriend, Leonard (Neal) are given a very strange mission. A group of scientists have discovered how to manipulate the space-time continuum, allowing them to travel in time, and they have sent someone back to kill Hitler as a child. A counter-group, the RATTs – Researchers Against Time Travel – believe this will just make things worse i.e. allowing someone else, more competent, to rise instead, so through Boss, hire Serena and Leonard to kill the assassin. So how do you stop someone, when those behind them have the ability to control time itself, and counter every move?

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as Predestination, and that film demonstrates how time-travel, altering past effects and the resulting paradoxes, should be handled. Here, the film never gets a firm grasp on it, and nor does the budget allow for anything approaching the credible depiction of a previous era that is necessary. The performances are all over the place too, mostly under-emoted and flat, though there’s also the worst apparent attempt at a British accent I’ve heard in years: Dick Van Dyke snorts derisively from the corner. [Look, I know we make great villains and all, but if you don’t have someone who can do it properly, and the Britishness isn’t necessary to the plot, I have to wonder: why bother?] As noted, there’s a sudden switch in focus, and it’s quite jarring, although I suppose it kinda makes sense for a story (nominally) about time-travel to have a fractured structure. Here again though, it doesn’t add anything to the plot, and a more linear retelling might perhaps have allowed the makers to build more empathy with Serena.

It wouldn’t have impacted the plot much, since it’s only at the end, when the Boss does the whole “let me tell you the entire plan for no good reason” thing – a staple of movie characters since early Bond flicks – that it makes sense. However, please note the sharp distinction between “sense” and “compelling viewing”, since the latter is never even approached here. Technically sound, with some interesting camerawork and a decent soundtrack, this remains just marginally passable as entertainment, mostly thanks to a script in need of at least two more rewrites.

Dir: Kevin James Barry
Star: Evalena Marie, Jonathan Thomson, Dave Neal, Marek Tarlowski

Barely Lethal

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“Barely entertaining.”

barelylethalI could hear Chris’s eyebrows raising when the title here rolled: what kind of film was this? Fortunately, the arrival of Samuel L. Jackson reassured her ruffled eyebrows – and is that Sansa Stark as well? Alright, then: if you insist… It turns out to be a mash-up of two genres: the ‘teenage killing machine’ and the ‘high-school drama’, and is every bit as awkward as that sounds. Since being orphaned, Megan Walsh (Steinfeld) has been brought up as an assassin in a remote location, under the tutelage of the appropriately-named Hardman (Jackson), and with another trainee, Heather (Turner), a fractious rival. However, Megan begins to wonder what she’s missing in “real life”; after a mission to capture evil nemesis Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), ends with Megan plummeting into a river, and presumed lost by her employers, she opts to start a new life. She becomes an ‘exchange student’, falls for the local hot kid (Mann), ignores the AV geek (Cameron) who falls for her – the usual sort of drama. After an incident at school goes viral, Hardman realizes his top agent is not as dead as he thought, and worse still, Knox has broken out of custody, and has revenge on her mind. Can Megan handle all that and still make it to Homecoming?

It’s an interesting idea, not least because Megan bases her knowledge and understanding of the world on the likes of Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You. A satirical skewering of the difference between those and reality would be welcome, or even something darker in tone, along the lines of Heathers, with Megan’s lack of moral compass letting her clean out the dregs of the school with no qualms. However, the film seems less interested in satire, than going through the same cliches: it doesn’t help that Mann resembles a cross between Justin Beiber and Robert Pattinson. There’s nothing new or remotely interesting about this aspect, and it brings the film to a grinding halt. That’s something of a shame, as the action plot is nicely-handled, with some decent set-pieces. Jackson and Alba are old hands at this kind of thing, and I’d far rather have seen a film concentrating entirely on their struggles with each other, using the likes of Steinfeld and Turner as proxies.

It’s hard to say who the target audience is for this, or at least find one which would be satisfied by both aspects. Those who enjoy the school drama are likely to be uninterested in high-jinks out the back of a plane. Certainly, those who are looking for action – raises hand – will find themselves bored to tedium in the middle of this. At the end, Chris turned to me and said, “I didn’t think this would be your sort of film.” I think she has a point. I’m perhaps three decades or more, and a sex-change, from being able to appreciate this.

Dir: Kyle Newman
Star: Hailee Steinfeld, Thomas Mann, Dove Cameron, Sophie Turner

Mortal Prey, by John Sandford

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

mortalpreyMurder mysteries typically climax with the apprehension of the murderer, or murderers; but at the conclusion of the 10th Lucas Davenport series novel, Certain Prey, one of the two culprits, Clara Rinker (who’s been a professional hired killer ever since she was 16), made a clean getaway. When I finished that book, I was sure that readers hadn’t seen the last of her. Sure enough, this 13th series installment picks up her story three years later; and I knew that it was a story I couldn’t leave hanging.

It should be stated at the outset that this book has much the same flaws as its predecessor. While the characterizations of the secondary characters are sometimes, I think, a bit sharper here, most of them again are not likable. Series sleuth Davenport is even more unlikeable here than before. His abrasive, cocky, arrogant, “rules-don’t-apply-to-me” personality and his fondness for physical intimidation is clearly meant to give him an edgy, “bad-boy” appeal, but for me just manages to make him annoying. Compared to most traditional fictional detectives, moreover, he’s not in the top league; he’s willing to slog through a lot of leg work, and both books make reference to his uncanny luck, but having case solutions fall into his lap through luck and intuition is a cheap literary substitute for close observation (though here he admittedly does pick up on a couple of crucial details at one key point) and reasoned deduction. (The series isn’t pure noir, but has enough similarity to it that I could recommend it to noir fans; he reminds me more of fictional detectives in that tradition, like Sam Spade –though in fairness to Spade, I can’t imagine the latter freaking out like Davenport does at one place here.)

That the FBI would bring him in to consult on this case at all is also a stretch; apart from luck, he was hardly that effective against Clara in the earlier book. (There, the idea that they would cooperate with the Minneapolis police was quite plausible; but here, though the main setting is St. Louis, there’s apparently no attempt at all to cooperate with the local police there –which isn’t so plausible.) Sandford milks a supposed contrast between the allegedly street-smart local cop culture and the putatively effete, overly technology-reliant FBI mentality for all it’s worth, but I have my doubts about the realism of either end of that portrayal, as well.

However, the strengths of the earlier book are here in spades, too. The foremost one, again, is the portrayal of Clara, who’s one of the more complex, nuanced, vital and fascinating characters you’ll ever meet in the pages of fiction. She was already well-drawn in Certain Prey, which brought to life both her prominent ruthless/callous streak and her off-the-job “regular gal” side. (That book also vividly sketched her formative years, which were genuinely hellish –though if she’d had better moral fiber to start with, being the repeated victim of brutal violence herself would have given her a more compassionate perspective toward other suggested victims.) Here, though, Sandford deepens his portrayal exponentially, digging down to reveal the gentler and kinder side she doesn’t usually display. True, the evil side of her nature is pretty strong, and used to dominating. While she’s no sadist, and isn’t incapable of sparing people’s lives if she doesn’t believe killing is necessary, she also has no qualms at all about taking innocent life as part of her job, or if her survival depends on it (for her, being captured would mean death, since she’d certainly be executed), and she can be highly vengeful.

But though her capacity for empathy with her fellow humans is usually dormant, some people do evoke it; and her conscience isn’t always impotent. She does draw some lines even she won’t cross; and while she may threaten, for intimidation purposes, more than she’ll actually do, her bark is sometimes worse than her bite –even though her bite can be nasty.) And she’s a loyal friend you could literally trust with your life, a caring sister to her weak-minded little brother, and capable of genuine kindness and even love. Sandford shows us both the best and the worst sides of her nature here; it’s not wise to forget the latter for a minute –but not fair to forget the former, either.

Much more than in Certain Prey, the author raises profound ethical questions here, which are compounded of black and white that do represent absolute polarities, but which in the real world intermix in all sorts of challenging shades of gray. They’re not posed explicitly; they just arise naturally out of the situations, and they don’t come across as set up to cynically discredit the idea of absolutes (as they would be in the noir tradition), but rather as serious questions that seek to apply absolutes in a fallen world. (And trying to do that in the context of practical situations –real-life or fictional– is more apt to be illuminating than meditating on detached abstract principles.) The plotting also surpasses even the high standard of the earlier book. Successive developments are again completely unexpected but logical. While the familiar frequent taut tension and suspense is there through much of the book, in about the last fifth or so it becomes nearly unbearable, and the successive surprises literally throw your emotions and expectations around as if you were on a carnival thrill ride. The climax packed an unexpected emotional wallop that blew me out of the water.

It was hard to apply a star rating, but I thought the superior quality of this second novel of the pair deserved four. This is a grim, gritty, violent read, with a high body count; not everyone who dies here deserves to, and a couple of people are gruesomely tortured to death (not by Clara –in fairness to her, that isn’t her style), though their suffering isn’t directly described. Adjectives like comforting, happy and upbeat don’t apply here. But the adjectives riveting, thought-provoking, evocative, and powerful are most definitely appropriate!

Note: As in Certain Prey, there’s a lot of bad language here, often including obscenity, and some very coarse sexual attitudes expressed and evidenced by some of the male characters (but no explicit sex).

Author: John Sandford
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon in all formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.