Altitude

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“Fly the unfriendly skies.”

If you ever wanted to see Denise Richards brawl with MMA star Chuck Liddell, or even the daughter of Frasier, this film delivers. For Richards plays FBI hostage negotiator, Gretchen Blair, who is being ignominiously sent back to Washington after willfully disobeying orders during a siege. She ends up sitting next to the increasingly-nervous Terry (Barker), who offers her $50 million if she helps him get off the plane alive. For he knows it’s about to be hijacked by Matthew Sharpe (Lundgren) and his cronies, who will stop at nothing to retrieve the item which Terry took from them. It’s up to Gretchen, with the dubious help of an air marshal on his third solo flight, to stop their plan.

Far from the first film of its kind – Passenger 57, with Wesley Snipes, most obviously comes to mind – this starts off almost as a self-aware version of the genre, and is all the better for it. Witness, for example, Jonathan Lipnicki’s brief cameo as one of those super-perky flight attendants everyone hates, the cold, dead eyes of Sharpe’s lead henchwoman, Sadie (Grammer), while she has to pretend to be a stewardess, or Blair’s rant at the passenger who occupies her prized window-seat. It’s clear the writer has flown a lot. More of this, as well as further examples of Arnie-esque one-liners such as “You need to adjust your altitude, bitch!” and we could have had a cult classic.

Unfortunately, as things proceed, it loses a bit of its quirky charm and becomes just an increasingly implausible actioner. I mean, a plane taking off with the escape slides deployed is one thing; passengers escaping from the aircraft while it does so? I also wonder who, exactly, cleared and prepared the wilderness runway on which Sharpe lands the plane, surely the work of hundreds of people over a significant period. Richards is surprisingly credible here, especially if you remember her utterly unconvincing turn as Ph.D Dr Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. However, it’s former Miss Teen Malibu Grammer who is outstanding here among the villains for her lack of scruples, not least because Lundgren – presumably now too old for this shit – spends almost the entire time in the cockpit. Though him flying the plane through a thunderstorm, while the score plays Ride of the Valkyries, was a nice touch.

The plane on which 90% of this takes place, already lends itself to a claustrophobic setting, but Merkin seems to prefer to push the camera in too close to the action, and in half-darkness. I suspect the stand-ins may have been involved, since looking at the IMDb, even Liddell, who plays another of Sharpe’s minions, had two stunt doubles. By the time this finishes – likely no spoiler to say there’s a giant fireball involved – its welcome has just about been exhausted. Yet there has been enough wit and energy to make this qualify as a pleasant surprise, one which surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations.

Dir: Alex Merkin
Star: Denise Richards, Kirk Barker, Greer Grammer, Dolph Lundgren

If Looks Could Kill

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“Keeps the pot boiling energetically enough.”

I’ve been a fan of The Asylum studio for a while. They’re famous – or infamous – mainly for two things. Originally, they churned out “mockbusters”, films that rode the advertising coat-tails of larger budget and more famous movies, using titles such as (I kid you not), Snakes on a Train. More recently, they are also creators of the cult Sharknado series for SyFy. However, The Asylum can and will, make more or less anything they think will turn a profit. Their quality of output does vary, shall we say. Yet I was entertained by this slice of Lifetime fluff ‘n’ nonsense more than expected, mostly due to effective performances from the two leads.

There’s Faith Gray (Estes), whose new job as a beat cop has re-united her with Detective Paul Wagner (Kosalka), for whom she has always had a “thing.” But at an incident in a local bar, he meets and ends up beginning a relationship with, Jessica Munroe (Spiro). She’s a drop-dead blonde with aspirations of becoming a movie star – not something easily accomplished in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Before you can say “We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors,” she’s pregnant and married to Paul. Faith, however, thinks there’s something not quite right about Jessica, though her investigation could be considered more as jealousy-induced stalking. It’s certainly painted as such by its target.

The film never tries to hide the fact that Jessica is nutty as a fruitcake. As a result, its plotting is instead very much concerned just with getting the story from Point A to B, offering few surprises. I’m not exactly convinced by the “Based on a true story” claim here. And let’s not even start with the police procedures depictede: let’s just say, Stillwater PD could use some re-training, and move on. Yet the pleasures outweighed the deficiencies; in particular, as mentioned, watching the mousy Faith and psychotic glam-girl Jessica face off. The latter gets most of the cinematic highlights, vamping it up to great effect. Witness, for example, her hyper-ventilating in order to place a convincingly panicked phone call to her lover. Guess all Jessica’s acting classes finally paid off!

I admit, there’s something fun about watching a manipulative sociopath at work: there’s a reason Dangerous Liaisons is one of the all-time greats. Spiro isn’t quite at Glenn Close standards, yet both she and Estes give it their all, and elevate the material to enjoyable nonsense. Even if we didn’t quite get the hellacious cat-fight climax for which I was hoping, it’s always good to see a film where both protagonist and antagonist are women, and there’s no doubt all the effort went into Faith and Jessica, with the male characters barely registering. Paul, in particular, is so easily deceived you wonder how he ever became a detective. Yet, as pulpy nonsense goes, this hour and a half certainly went by quickly and painlessly enough.

Dir: James Cullen Bressack
Star: Stefanie Estes, Summer Spiro, Tomek Kosalka, Brian Shoop

La Esquina del Diablo

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“Stuck in a corner.”

You’re in deep in Devil’s Corner
And you already realize it’s hard to get out.
What would you do if there’s no place to run
Sharpen your senses and defend yourself well

In Devil’s Corner, walking towards love
Dodging bullets and risking your heart 
It’s so hard to escape from Devil’s Corner 
Defying death I came here to fight 
And to love 

Thus goes the peppy pop ditty which plays over the opening credits of this Colombian telenovela. It stars Ana Serradilla, whom we previously saw as the heroine of La Viuda Negra. Here, she’s on the other side of the law, playing cop Ana García. She wants to be assigned to the special operations group. But her temper gets the best of her when she’s given a surreptitious test, interviewing a suspect who’s actually a policeman, and is deliberately trying to provoke her.

Fortunately, she gets a second chance to make a first impression, and is inserted in an undercover role to the aptly-named “La esquina del diablo” – the Devil’s corner. It’s a no-go zone for police, a ghetto perched high up on the hills overlooking the city. The area is controlled with an iron hand by the Velasco family, led by patriarch Angel (Tappan); they run drugs and other criminal activities, and have been a thorn in the side of the local authorities for years. Local cop Eder Martin (de Miguel) sends Ana into the area as a social worker, to gather information, after a helicopter crash supposedly kills Angel. However, it quickly turns out this was merely a ruse by the boss, to get the cops off his back. Can Ana embed herself deeply into the local community to complete her mission?

That’s just one – possibly not even the main one – of a number of plot threads which are woven into the fabric of the 70 episodes. Additional elements include:

  • Angel’s second-in-command, Yago (Pernia), who was a childhood friend of Eder
  • Angel’s son, Angelito, who is an ambitious loose cannon with psychopathic tendencies
  • Eder’s relationship with the mayor’s daughter, and its conflict with the growing attraction to Ana
  • Meanwhile, Ana’s gradual realization that Yago may not be as bad an apple as he seems
  • The mayor’s political aspirations and presidential campaign
  • Yago’s son is a promising football player, but is also on the verge of being recruited by Angelito
  • The other undercover cop, who befriends Angelito in jail and helps him escape
  • The mysterious “He”, a rival crime boss who inhabits the upper echelon of the city’s elite
  • The serial killer who is leaving a trail of women’s corpses, tattooed with numbers on their shoulders

Phew. This cornucopia of plot-lines likely both the series’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There’s no doubt it’s actually very well-handled by the writers and cast: even the relatively minor characters are given an impressive amount of depth, and the script never gets jumbled or confused. This is a sharp contrast to Camelia la Texana, the show I’m currently watching: you don’t so much follow the plot, as desperately cling to it, as various groups of sideburn-wearing people scheme against each other. It’s also a contrast, in another way, to Viuda Negra, which was unashamedly about Griselda Blanco. In this case, the breadth of focus inevitably leads to a dilution of why we’re here, with poor Ana often sidelined.

This is a shame, since the heroine here is shown in the first episode, as fully capable of single-handedly taking out and/or down multiple villains with her skills. The mission here is much less direct: it’s very much undercover intelligence-gathering. She can’t kick ass, because that is not what social workers do: if she did, anyone who saw it would have cause to suspect Ana’s real identity and mission, immediately becoming part of the problem. So instead, there’s a lot more skulking around, trying to earn the trust of Eder, and narrow escapes from being caught by Velasco’s gang. After what we saw at the beginning, this passive approach seems like a sad waste of her law-enforcement talents.

This is the main reason for the relatively low score above. For in some ways, it’s the best of the shows I’ve seen, in terms of combining characters and plots in an engaging way. I’m impressed with the non-specific nature of the location, mentioning no particular country or city. The sharp divide between rich and poor, with the latter living in ghettos run by a largely criminal element, reminded me of the Rio favelas – I highly recommend you watch the amazing Elite Squad if you want a glimpse of the hellish life there. But I would imagine it’s equally likely to be Colombia, since that’s where the series was actually shot. The series does well too, in portraying the moral grey-scale: between Ana at one end and Angelito at the other, most making choices based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

There are a lot of interesting supporting characters: not so much Eder and Yago, who are fairly cookie-cutter in terms of being opposing romantic heroes, with dark, troubled (and somewhat shared) pasts. It’s mostly on the fringes of Velasco’s gang that all the fun is to be found. Cachalote (Julián Caicedo) is a burly thug with a surprisingly soft heart – he has an unrequited crush on the mayor’s daughter, formed during her kidnapping. Meteoro (Erick Leonardo Cuellar) is the gang’s drug chemist, though he looks and acts like a methed-up version of Giorgio Tsoukalos, from the Ancient Aliens show. Most notable of all is Michelle (Estefania Piñeres, right), a hard-nosed barrio brat who is more than capable of holding her own in the tough environment, and is ferociously loyal to her boss. She would have enough stories to tell for her own, lengthy series, I’ve no doubt about that.

However, as an action heroine series, it’s undeniably a disappointment: I was expecting much more focus on the central character, based both on Negra and the first episode. And, indeed, much more action. As a regular TV show, it would deserve a higher rating, likely a full star better, since I genuinely did enjoy it. It just isn’t quite the fit for the site which I was hoping to see.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Miguel de Miguel, Gregorio Pernía, Christian Tappan 

A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author’s Doucet series. However, that nominal “series” is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff’s deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who’d like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)

Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures, with references to things like zydeco music. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she’s clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle’s classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff’s office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he’s guilty –but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.

Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren’t obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people’s; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of –only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn’t just an intellectual puzzle; it’s a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.

This can be a very dark novel (and I’m told that’s often characteristic of Hoag’s work). The murder and rapes themselves aren’t directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren’t alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn’t have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn’t intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (That’s not a bad authorial aim!) Disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn’t presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.)

Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn’t stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms –which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn’t Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)

Since I’m trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I’m not planning to pursue this one. But I’d definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I’d be open to reading more of her work sometime.

Note: While it’s not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. There’s also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.

Author: Tami Hoag
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Taken Heart

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“Taken, out of context”

There seems to have been a sudden surge of gynocentric takes on Taken (as it were), with first Never Let Go, and now this. Both concern single mothers with a very particular set of skills, venturing into treacherous foreign territory after their daughters are abducted. In this case, the setting is Belize, where Nina Johnson (Calis) has gone to spend the summer with her boyfriend, volunteering at a local orphanage. When the promised daily contacts stop, single mom and Miami detective Kate (Holden) gets not much in the way of immediate help from the local authorities, and makes a bee-line to Belize so she can investigate on the ground. She’s helped, after some initial doubts, by friendly embassy employee Francisco Orizaga (Degruttola), who has particular skills of his own, being ex-special forces.

They discover Nina has been kidnapped by local cartel, La Muerte Roja (The Red Death), who have branched out from traditional cartel business like drugs, into black market organ transplants. A bar in Punta Dia, visited by Nina, has become ground zero for them, from where they kidnap tourists and turn them into spare parts for their rich clients. It’s up to Nina and her sidekick to track down the base of operations, and free Kate before she becomes a selection box of replacement organs. But that won’t be easy, given how deeply embedded LMR are in the town, and how feared they are by the residents.

There’s a huge plot-hole here, in that the last thing any cartel will ever do is target tourists, for nothing brings down federal heat faster. It’s been that way ever since the murder of Mark Kilroy in the seventies (by a satanist cult who had previously killed and dismembered more than a dozen locals with impunity) and remains the case now. Gangs would far rather sell visitors weed, than do anything which might interfere with a valuable and vital cash cow like tourism. But why let that get in the way of a slice of something which teeters between naked xenophobia and being really guilty about its naked xenophobia. Dammit, pick a side and commit to it, why can’t you.

That aside, this falls squarely into the realm of bland competence. Holden has the desperate mother thing down, yet isn’t as convincing when it comes to playing the tough-nosed detective. I sense that Francisco’s purpose in the script is to handle that heavy lifting, and the resulting dilution is perhaps why this doesn’t work as well as Never Let Go. It’s inoffensive enough: I watched the movie on a plane, and it beat browsing the in-flight magazine for a couple of hours. However, if you’re going for that Taken vibe, it isn’t enough to lift the premise, since the story was likely the least interesting thing there. You need someone who can deliver intensity somewhere in the same ballpark as Liam Neeson, and Holden comes up emphatically short in that department.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Gina Holden, Natasha Calis, Raffaello Degruttola, Matthew Ziff

Never Let Go

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“Takenette.”

Based on the title and synopsis, I was expecting something like a Lifetime TV Movie. A mother frantically searching for her abducted child in a foreign location, before they can be sold off to some rich Arab, would seem right up their alley. [Though of course, this kind of thing has long been a popular subject for exploitation, to the point where the Hays Code of the thirties had explicitly to ban movies about “white slavery”] It’s a good deal grittier and harder hitting than that, though could have done with much better explanation of why this momma bear is so ferocious – among a number of other aspects.

The heroine is Lisa Brennan (Dixon), who is enjoying a vacation in Morocco with her child, the product of her affair with an up-and-coming politician, Clark Anderson (Whitney). A moment’s inattention sees the child snatched, and Brennan begins her hunt. She has to do it almost entirely on her own, and indeed, in the face of significant interference; because, after her involvement in the death of one of the kidnappers, Lisa is the target of a woman-hunt by the local authorities. Fortunately, what she does have are a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like the kidnappers. Skills that that poster tag-line references in a shameless way, which I can only applaud. Well played, marketers. Well played….

These would have probably come as less of a surprise had there been some content establishing Lisa’s credentials as a bad-ass. It’s only well after she has gone full Liam Neeson, that it’s even suggested the heroine is an FBI agent, rather than some random Mom on a beach. You just have to take her hand-t0-hand skills on trust. We also discover that the inhabitants of Marrakech leave their doors conveniently open, greet home invaders with little more than moderate confusion, and can be convinced to assist foreign fugitives on the run from the police, with little more than forcefully-spoken English and enthusiastic hand gestures. Meanwhile, the local armed cops will let said fugitive beat them all up, without so much as firing a single shot.

Fortunately, Ford is a much better director than a script-writer, keeping the pace brisk as he gallops towards a “surprise” ending that will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody (an additional black mark on Ford the author). Dixon is also very good in her role, projecting the right degree of focus and intensity, and the pounding, percussive driven score as she’s rushing around the narrow streets and across the rooftops, enhances proceedings significantly, in a way that echoes Run Lola Run. The problems are more whenever the film slows down from that frenetic and breathless pace. For it’s during these quieter moments, where the flaws in the story become most apparent, and you’ll probably find yourself going, “Hang on…”, to a degree that considerably weakens the overall impact.

Dir: Howard J. Ford
Star: Angela Dixon, Nigel Whitmey. Heather Peace, Velibor Topic

Stoner

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“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss

Operações Especiais

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“Brazilian whacks.”

The Brazilian special police unit, known as BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais) have a ferocious reputation for a hard-edged approach to its work. This is, likely, necessary for surviving the favelas (slums) of Rio in which they operate, going up against heavily-armed drug dealers. But with this also comes a “by any means necessary” approach, which has come in for criticism. They’ve been the topic of films before, most notably the incredible Elite Squad, which is an all-time classic of action cinema (and removed any chance of us attending the 2016 Olympics). It’s into this obviously macho environment, that rookie policewoman Francis (Pires) is dropped, and has to make her way.

Early on, this is a heroine who is seriously out of her depth, being a former hotel administrator, who opted to join the police after a robbery at her place of work. Quite how she ends up on the squad is a bit vague: quotas may have been involved. Anyway, they’ve just succeeded in flushing the bad guys out of Rio, but the perps have taken root in a suburb instead, so for their next mission, BOPE are sent there to supplement/replace the local cops. Initially, both residents and city government are delighted to have someone there, following an incident in which local kids were shot. But after the gang members are defeated, the squad decide to turn their attention to the resident corrupt politicians. All of a sudden, they aren’t quite so welcome any more…

I loved Francis’s character arc: far from initally being any kind of bad-ass, her reactions during the first raid and subsequent gun-battle are much closer to the “cowering in a corner” which would likely be my personal approach to coming under attack. Her courage is latent, and somewhat misdirected – early on, she’s chewed out by her commanding officer, after risking herself to drag a wounded suspect out of the line of fire, something which clearly demonstrates the attitudes of BOPE. But she gets a tip from a prisoner, which pays off, giving her the self-confidence to come out of her shell. She blossoms from there, to the point that, by the end, she has become almost indistinguishable from her colleagues in terms of that attitude.

It does share a certain, alluring crypto-fascist attitude to Elite Squad: it seems to suggest that the cops deserve greater slack, since they never have anything but the best interests of the population at heart. At least Squad was willing to admit the potential for corruption – something this largely skirts, with the main villain carefully portrayed as a former cop. It also ends abruptly, feeling more like a pilot than a fully rounded feature, with too many loose ends. It’s still a sharp piece of social observation, with some good characters; her commanding officer is a particularly delight, someone who clearly gives not a damn for the niceties of convention. However, I’m still not likely to book any holidays to Rio for a while.

Dir: Tomas Portella
Star: Cleo Pires, Fabrício Boliveira, Thiago Martins, Marcos Caruso

Angel Force

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“In the jungle, the Lee-on sleeps tonight…”

This is confusing. For the IMDb lists a completely different film by the same title – also made in 1991 and starring Moon Lee. That one stars Simon Yam: this one doesn’t. Meanwhile, Amazon has Yukari Oshima in the cast – I may have blinked and missed her, but more likely she was in the other one. It is also, despite the title, entirely unrelated to the Angel series, though did remind me I’ve not yet got round to reviewing parts two and three of that. If you see it referred to as Mission Kill and Mission of Condor too, I think that’s the “other” Angel Force as well; one site even refers to this movie as Lethal Blood 2, although it bears no relation to the first movie there either. I hope this helps…

Regardless, I wondered early on if this would even qualify, as May (Lee) takes a back seat, playing second banana to her boss, Peter (Lam). He has been tasked with rescuing kidnapped Westerner Harrison, stashed away after his capture, deep in the Burmese jungle by local drug lord, Khun Sa [who appears to have been a real person]. After putting together a team, on virtually the eve of the recovery mission, Peter is gunned down in an attempted hit, and it’s up to May to lead things. There are problems both outside and inside the team. A mole is leaking information on the mission to the people they are after, and the first guy Peter recruits, Benny (Ng), turns out to be a borderline psycho, who gets a bit rapey with a captured enemy. It’s up to May to complete the mission, get out alive, and then figure out who is the informant.

Right from the start here, there’s no shortage of action. Though a bit too much of it consists of two group spraying automatic gunfire at each other, through thick jungle foliage and with all the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. While I am never averse to seeing a guard-tower explode in a good, giant fireball, there is a limit to the appeal of such things, and it is certainly reached here, well before the arrival of what may be the first deus ex helicopter in cinema history. I was also amused by the painfully early nineties approach to both mobile phones the size of bricks,  and high-tech searches represented by a computer screen where the text largely consists of word-processor installation instructions. No wonder the team ended up with Psycho Benny.

Fortunately, the guns here jam or run out of ammo with regularity which could be concerning if I were a weapons manufacturer. As a viewer though, the film is on far more solid ground when dealing with the hand-to-hand action. Lee leads from the front with some fights that showcase her speed and agility to good effect. The most notable of these is a battle against Fujimi Nadeki after the near-assassination of Peter, in which May chases the killer through the streets on a motorcycle, to a half-demolished building. A savage gun-battle follows, notable not least for May’s point-blank execution of one man, ending with her going up against Nadeki. While it forms the high point, more or less any time Lee puts the gun down is a good indication you should start paying greater attention here.

Dir: Shan Hua
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Hugo Ng, Fong Lung
a.k.a. Tian shi te jing

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera