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

PMS Cop

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“A not-so fair cop”

pmscopBeginning with a jokey caption stating “The producers of this movie are in no way admitting to the existence of PMS,” this is a rather uneven B-movie, which has a potentially interesting premise. Unfortunately, it then does not enough with the concept.

Mary (Hall) is a police officer with anger management issues. After beating up a rapist dressed as a clown. she’s ordered to undergo counseling. Her therapist puts her in contact with a pharmaceutical company testing a new drug, Corybantic, aimed at reducing the impact of PMS. After consulting with the leader of the project, Dr. Sokolov (Skinner), Mary starts taking the drug, and is injected with a chip to track her body’s response. But after witnessing her partner being gunned down during a convenience store robbery, it triggers a violent psychotic reaction. The drug company re-capture their test subject, only for her to break out of their restraints and go on a brutal rampage through the facility. Turns out the chip wasn’t just for telemetry either; it came from an abandoned Soviet project into mind-control.

There a number of ways this could have gone. Social satire, as hinted at in the opening caption, or perhaps a modern version of the Frankenstein story. Instead… Well, there’s not much more than Mary, or her “PMS Cop” alter-ego (played by a different actress, Means), roaming the drug company’s building, banging heads together. The gore is enthusiastic and nicely practical; I particularly enjoyed the silicone implants ripped out of one poor victim’s chest, then used as the means of death for another. You don’t see that every day. However, there simply isn’t enough going on with the story-line to sustain audience interest.

It also shifts notably in tone. Early, it’s almost jokey – for instance, the clown rapist ties up his victim with balloons. Yet the humour is abruptly switched off as soon as Mary begins the drug trial; you’re left feeling like the rest of the film is a comedy without jokes. You can certainly check off the movies director Blakey is inspired by. Robocop, The Terminator and possibly Lady Terminator. Not that there’s anything wrong with influences. It’s just that those are all significantly better movies, and Blakey doesn’t bring sufficient new or interesting to offset this disadvantage. In technical terms, the lighting could certainly also have been better, with too many scenes painfully under-lit, in what may have been a misguided attempt as “atmosphere.”

While I’ve seen and enjoyed B-movies which have skated by on even thinner premises, they’ve been able to take their concepts and do more with them. This instead feels like a 15-minute short, stretched into a feature. I suspect it’s one which would have been more effective at the shorter length.

Dir: Bryon Blakey
Star: Cindy Means, Heather Hall, Elaine Jenkins, Megan Dehart

Forget and Forgive

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“Largely forgettable.”

forgetAmnesia as a plot device is something which almost inevitably triggers heavy eye-rolling in me, because the results nearly all involve the subject regaining their memory in the precise way required by the plot. It’s so incredibly contrived. About the only films to have used amnesia that I like, are Memento, which was utterly consistent in its depiction, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, which was not about the effects of losing your memory, but much more about what happens when it comes back. This Canadian TVM will not become the third in the series, squandering some potentially interesting ideas.

Anna Walker (Röhm) is the subject of a vicious interrogation and beating, then nearly drowns. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of her life or her family, and is surprised to discover she is actually a vice detective, with a husband, Tate (Napier) and extremely bratty teenage daughter, Emily (Douglas). Turns out her new personality is also radically different from the old one; a good deal stricter, as Emily finds to her distaste. That’s true at work as well; turns out that Anna was not entirely a straight arrow as a cop, as she discovers after finding a box in her closet containing a cellphone and a lease agreement to an apartment where, in turn, she finds large wads of cash. Her partner (Runyan) seems to be equally crooked Is this tied to the incident which caused her amnesia?

Röhm herself is okay, and the opening sequence is surprisingly brutal, given the medium and origins. However, the rest of the cast range from the thoroughly bland (Runyan) to the immensely irritating (Douglas), though in the latter’s case at least, this seems deliberate. This would be forgivable if the script managed to live up to the toughness with which it begins. In other hands, the general scenario might have made for an interesting study: how a sudden, externally triggered change in someone’s character affects them and those around them.

However, the film instead chooses to wander off in a number of far less successful directions. Turns out there’s a young prostitute that Anna was protecting, and whose existence poses a threat to those at the top of the vice food-chain. Throw in a pointless subplot involving her relationship with her estranged father – because, this is a Lifetime TVM, after all – plus some meaningless flashbacks of her wandering in the woods, wearing her police uniform, and you’ll probably find your interest waning well before the climax. It’s likely too much for all save the most undemanding of viewers to forgive, and everyone else will have no problems at all forgetting this one.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Elisabeth Röhm, Tygh Runyan, Neil Napier, Vivien Endicott Douglas

L.A. Bounty

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“Deeds, not words.”

labountyI’ve been doing this site for 13 years, and it’s amazing that this is the first “real” Sybil Danning movie I’ve covered (save her appearances in Malibu Express and Grindhouse), For she was one of the first action heroines I ever noticed, back in the golden era of VHS which was the eighties, when I was at college. Battle Beyond the Stars, Phantom Empire, Reform School Girls…. While I’d be hard pushed to call many of them cinematic classics – or even good, by normal standards – Danning, whose picture can be found in the dictionary beside the word “statuesque”, made an impact in them all. She seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough, when an accident during rehearsal effectively ended her action career, leaving her with severely herniated discs in her back, and LA Bounty as her swansong.

She plays bounty hunter of few words, Ruger, an ex-cop who has been holding a grudge against those who killed her partner and got away with it. In particular,. that’s Cavanaugh (Hauser), an import-export businessman who has a number of other, shadier sidelines. His latest involves kidnapping a candidate for mayor of LA, only for Ruger to interrupt the process. As a result, the victim’s wife could identify the perps, so must be disposed of, only for Ruger to come to the rescue once again, intent on being the heavily-armed fly in the ointment, as she works her way up the chain of lowlife scum, towards Cavanaugh.

It is a bog-standard actioner from the period, with eighties hair, eighties fashion, an eighties soundtrack, and lots of bloodless gunplay. But two things salvage it from absolutely forgettability. And, no, that isn’t a set-up for a reference to Sybil’s breasts [impressive though they are; as a teenager, I must have worn out my copy of The Howling II…], for I mean Danning and Hauser, who are nicely constructed as polar opposites. Ruger is a women of very few words; the IMDb says it’s a a total of 31 during the entire film, but that doesn’t diminish much from the badassery of her character. At the other extreme, Cavanaugh runs his mouth at hypersonic velocity, and you get the sense he is capable of going from playful puppiness to psychotic rage in the blink of an eye. The contrast is well-conceived and nicely-executed, building to an extended finale around the villain’s warehouse where Ruger has to fend off everything from clockwork explosive birds to a giant, stuffed polar-bear.

As mentioned, while you’d be hard pushed to argue this was unjustly overlooked at the Oscars or whatever, it’s workmanlike enough. If the material has seen better days and the budget seems to be missing a zero, it’s improved enough by the two leads to leave you wondering where Danning’s career might have gone, if fate hadn’t dealt her such a crappy hand.

Dir: Worth Keeter
Star: Sybil Danning, Wings Hauser, Blackie Dammett, Henry Darrow

Fox Hunter

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“For Fox’s sake…”

foxhunterGrittily disturbing, only some misplaced and failed stabs at comedy prevent this from likely being Leung’s best work ever. She plays rookie Hong Kong cop Jenny, following in the footsteps of her late father, who takes on an undercover mission aimed at trapping gangster Tung (Fung). While it succeeds, Tung escapes, and takes vengeance on Jenny, killing her uncle in brutal fashion. This, in turn, pushes her over the edge, and she teams up with his pimp-turned-informant (Chan), who is feeling aggrieved after having not received his promised reward from the authorities. The pair head to China, where Tung is hiding out, only for Jenny to rapidly wear out her welcome with the local cops and their commander (Guang). Worse is to follow, when Tung finds out they are on his tail, he begins a campaign of terrorism, culminating in wiring an entire shopping mall with explosives. He’s very fond of explosives…

The cover (right) is surely among the least accurate I’ve seen, depicting a frothy concoction mercifully not present – and the movie contains absolutely no pineapples at all, in case you were wondering. In particular, they really shouldn’t have tried to make Chan’s character any kind of comedic foil, because it just doesn’t work. During the early going, I was praying for his rapid, painful demise, though he does become more sympathetic in the second half. Fortunately, the other aspects outweigh the ill-considered negatives. Though this is one of only four films directed by Tung Wai (including an all time HK favorite, Magic Cop), he has a long pedigree as an action director – among his works previously covered here are Mulan, Reign of Assassins and The Assassin – and that’s where this movie shines. Particular standouts are a sequence where Tung shows up at the apartment complex where our pair are hiding out, and the final battle up and down the insides of the mall.

It’s clear throughout that Leung is doing most, if not all, her own stunts; the sequence where she uses a sofa to escape a grenade blast is so realistic, you can virtually smell her singed eyebrows. It also helps that she isn’t portrayed as all at some kind of superwoman. Indeed, Tung is depicted as stronger, and far more brutal than the heroine, resulting in a genuine sense of peril for her – Jenny has to dig deep into her reservoir of tenacity simply in order to survive his onslaught, never mind prevailing over her nemesis. As well as the cover, the English-language title doesn’t do this justice, conjuring up a rather different set of images. While I get the sense of her going after a predator, something like Wolf Hunter might have been more appropriate, in terms of getting the hard-edged tone for which this aims.

Dir: Stephen Tung Wai
Star: Jade Leung, Jordan Chan, Ching Fung, Yu Rong Guang

Super Cops

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“Less a review, more of a warning.”

supercopsNot, in any way, to be confused with Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh vehicle Super Cop, this one barely has enough action heroine content to qualify here, despite the presence of both Khan and Oshima, who must have been in Taiwan for the weekend or something, and agreed to take on roles of a local cop and a Japanese Interpol agent respectively. Despite a feisty misunderstanding when they first meet, Khan mistaking Oshima for a thief, this is much more about brother and sister Siu-Tong and Chee-Loy, who head to the big city in search of their uncle. They end up getting work in a restaurant, except this brings them into conflict with the local gangsters – fortunately, the brother is kinda good at kicking ass, and this leads to ever-increasing waves of thugs descending on the eating establishment. Really, you wonder why anyone goes there to eat, since it seems barely five minutes goes by without the need to order replacement glass-topped tables.

Meanwhile, Khan and Oshima are seeking to trap heroine dealer Billy Chow, and the two plot strands, which have been so disparate I was seriously thinking this was a pair of films edited together on Godfrey Ho’s day off, finally converge. This happens at an open-air banquet celebrating Chow’s birthday, to which all the characters are somehow invited. Hey, look! More tables through, over and into which people can be hurled! The action is okay in quality – there’s some scampering around a train at the opening which looks genuinely dangerous – yet severely deficient in quantity. Instead, a lot of the running time consists of more or less blatant padding, such as the brother dressing up in drag to ensnare his boss at the restaurant. It’ll have you yearning for the subtle comedic stylings of Benny Hill.

There’s not much point in saying more: I wasted enough time watching this, and don’t feel you should have to waste time too, as I struggle toward the usual word count. Just know that this one is for Khan and Oshima completists only, and even they will find little here worthy of their attention. There’s certainly absolutely nothing super about it.

Dir: Chiang-Bang Mao
Star: Chia-Hui Liu, Ka-Kui Ho, Cynthia Khan, Yukari Ôshima
a.k.a. Huo tou da jiang jun

Good Morning, Killer

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“And I still don’t know the significance of the title.”

gmkBased on a 2003 novel of the same name by April Smith, I can’t speak to the novel. but this TV movie doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from… Well, from anything else to be honest; the overall impact here, is of a not-exactly superlative episode of one of those three-letter acronym shows Chris enjoys watching [star Bell was part of one such – JAG]. After a young girl is abducted from a shopping mall, FBI special agent Ana Grey (Bell) and her colleagues have to try and locate the perpetrator, who appears to be a previously-unknown serial predator (Jordan), who kidnaps his victims and rapes them over a period of time, tormenting their families with telephone calls, before releasing the traumatized victims with a chilling reminder, “You won’t forget me.” Meanwhile, Ana is having relationship issues, both with her boyfriend, fellow detective Andrew Berringer (Hauser), and a colleague who doesn’t appear to appreciate the need for intra-departmental loyalty.

It’s hard to know quite where to put the blame for this one, but I think it’s mostly on a poorly-written script that, particularly, in the first half, wanders around without focus. If they had established the characters first, on both sides of the case, they could then have incorporated the relationship stuff, but instead, it feels as if you are supposed to care about these people, before the film has given you any reason to do so. Maybe you are supposed to have read the book first? If so, I didn’t get that particular memo. Perhaps it doesn’t help either that this is based on the second Ana Grey book – the first remains unfilmed – an over-zealous attention to remaining faithful to the source may explain why the makers don’t bother to explain as much as they should about who anyone is.

Bell is competent enough, and the second half of the film is generally an improvement, concentrating more on the case and less on the soap-opera bubbles. In particular, the perp’s fondness for taking pictures of his victims during their ordeals, is a chilling element that comes over well in the film. However, there are some glaring loose ends, such as the fate of the homeless man who is, apparently, a key witness, and the climax, which sees Ana taken hostage by the prime suspect, doesn’t exactly provide a great deal of confidence in her abilities as an FBI agent. It seems to be going for a Silence of the Lambs vibe there; it doesn’t come anywhere close, and you can only presume a great deal was lost in translation from page to screen, given this is part of what appears to be a fairly well-regarded series of books.

Dir: Maggie Greenwald
Star: Catherine Bell, James Jordan, Cole Hauser, Genevieve Buechner