The Vault

starstarstar
“It’s always somebody else’s vault…”

In an effort to pay off gambling debts their brother Michael (Haze) has run up, sisters Leah (Eastwood) and Vee (Manning) plan and execute a bank robbery. While smart in intent – they set up a diversion, and have a cunning escape route prepared – it’s not long before the operation goes wrong. The bank’s safe does not hold anywhere near the expected haul: fortunately, the assistant manager (Franco) helpfully informs them of an undisclosed vault in the basement holding six million dollars in cash. Sending some of their gang down to the vault, The sisters can only watch on CCTV aghast, as the men are picked off by mysterious figures. For, it turns out, the bank was the site of a robbery in 1982, leading to a hostage situation that ended in multiple deaths. The ghosts of those involved are still in the basement, and opening the vault has apparently released them to take revenge.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film which combined a heist flick with a ghost story before, and it works fairly well. I say “fairly”, since it feels uneven. The bank robbery side is meticulously assembled, to the point that it could have been better if that been the movie’s sole focus. Eastwood, who made a strong impression in M.F.A., is equally as good here, playing Leah as a cunning strategist who has put a lot of thought into her meticulous plan, only for it to be derailed by factors outside her control. Vee, on the other hand, is a loose cannon, driven by her emotions, and reacting to events rather than managing them. You understand perfectly why the two sisters have led separate lives prior to reuniting to help Michael, though the specific details of the estrangement are never revealed.

It was almost an annoyance when the supernatural elements began to kick in, for those were not handled as effectively. Perhaps it’s a case of over-familiarity, with the horror genre being one with which I am particularly well-acquainted; the barely-glimpsed dark figures just didn’t do it for me. Some elements reminded me of the dumber excesses of the genre too. For instance, the willingness of the robbers to stumble around an extremely dimly-lit basement, without going, “Hang on… This makes no sense”. Or given the spectacular and murderous nature of the original robbery, it stretches belief that these local robbers had apparently never even heard of it. That’s a bit like someone from Hollywood not having heard of Charlie Manson.

While never derailing entirely the solid foundation of character and story-line set up in the first half, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the relative weakness of the second portion. Matters are likely not helped by an unsubtle coda which appears to have strayed in from a far worse film. This adds little if anything to the movie, and isn’t the sort of final impression you’d want to leave on an audience. The performances definitely deserved better.

Dir: Dan Bush
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning, Scott Haze, James Franco

Cocaine Godmother

starstarstarhalf
“A slice of Welsh rarebit”

As we mentioned in the 2018 preview, this has had a rather tortuous journey to the screen, with Zeta-Jones inked to the part of Griselda Blanco as long ago as October 2014. That theatrical film appears to have died on the vine, but the actress’s interest clearly did not. Last May, Lifetime gave the go-ahead to a TV movie version instead, telling the life story of a character who has already crossed this site before. Needless to say, there were howls of indignation from the usual quarters that the Welsh Zeta-Jones had been cast to play Blanco, though as she herself pointed out, she’d played Hispanic women before, such as in Zorro. It’s something which never bothers me: whether the performance works is always more important to me than the location of the performer’s birth.

In this case (and going by the Twitter reactions, many tend to agree), I’d say that Zeta-Jones certainly wasn’t the problem with the finished product. If considerably more attractive than the real Griselda, she is mostly very convincing, giving her portrayal the combination of driven intensity and potential for furious rage that Blanco possessed. The problem is more a script which simply fails to flow. Sure, the story touches most of the obvious moments in Griselda’s life, yet these appear completely unconnected to each other. The end result feels almost as if someone took a 70-episode telenovela and edited it down into a 90-minute TV movie. It’s more like Griselda Blanco’s Greatest Hits – and she was allegedly responsible for over 200 of those, hohoho.

It is a disturbing start, with the very young Blanco being pimped out by her mother in Medellin, only to pull a gun and shoot one of her customers dead after he refuses to pay. Damn. Thereafter, however, it bounces around rapidly, with little or no real time-frame. You get her killing husbands, inventing the motorcycle drive-by, the Dadeland Mall shootout, using attractive women to smuggle drugs in their lingerie and high-heels, etc. But all these fragments combine to provide little or no insight into her character, motives or personality (though I was somewhat impressed this did not soft-pedal Blanco’s bisexuality, unlike La Viuda Negra); I wanted to know what made her tick, and was sorely disappointed. You’d likely come away better informed simply by reading the Wikipedia article on her.

Perhaps it’s the kind of life which simply cannot be told adequately in such a brief time-span. I saw a number of comparisons to the Netflix series, Narcos, and do have to wonder if a 13-episode series might have been better suited to the material, rather than this breathless, and ultimately empty, gallop through Blanco’s life. There is still reported to be another take on the topic coming down the pipeline with Jennifer Lopez playing Blanco in an HBO movie. Like Zeta-Jones, Lopez had been linked to the role for a long time (since at least the death of the real Griselda in 2012), but little has been heard about that version since 2016. For now, this version will have to do.

Dir: Guillermo Navarro
Star: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raúl Méndez, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Matteo Stefan

Camelia La Texana

starstar
“Approximately 900 times longer than the song which inspired it.”

“A woman, if she loves a man, can give him her life.
But you must be careful if this woman is hurt,
For betrayal and smuggling are incompatible.”
Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte

I almost gave up after 20 episodes, as it had largely degenerated into a telenovela version of American Idol. [Seriously: the heroine had partnered up with a wannabe singer, trying to break into show-business] But literally in episode 20, Camelia finally got her act together. She gunned down both a corrupt Border Patrol officer, then pumped seven rounds into her boyfriend after he announced he was going back to his wife and child. Ok, I’ll watch a bit further. Turns out, the show seemed to operate on 10-episode arcs. Episode 30 saw a Godfather-like wedding massacre, which rewarmed my interest. By part 40, we had a former Interpol agent, who had taken the veil and was hiding out in a convent, while still having her “very particular set of skills” And at the 50th show… Well, we were close enough to the end – the series had 60 episodes – it seemed kinda pointless to stop.

The problems were the nine episodes in between, which were much more a chore than a pleasure. The basic story has Camelia (Maldonado) being seduced away from her family in San Antonio, Texas, and ambitions of a career in dentistry, by hunky Emilio Varela (Hayser). He’s working for drug lord Antonio Treviño (Gama), who is actually Camelia’s father, and who wants her to join him in Mexico. Emilio’s mission diverts badly off-book, and ends up dying in a Californian back-alley. Thereafter, it’s a meandering tale involving the battles for turf between Don Trevino and his rival, Arnulfo Navarro, as well as the extended families on both sides, and various other elements, such as corrupt Army officer General Urdapilleta, who may (or may not) also be a serial killer.

This will happen: significant expansion is obviously needed when you adapt a three-minute song into about 45 hours of TV drama. For the inspiration here was 1972 song Contrabando y Traición, by Los Tigres del Norte. While colloquially known as “Camelia la Texana,” the original title of this narcocorrida – a genre once described as “gangster rap with tubas and accordions” – translates as “Smuggling and Betrayal.” That’s a fairly accurate summary of both the song and the series. It tells of a couple who drive from Tijuana to LA with marijuana in their car tires. There, as in the show, Emilio tells Camelia he’s breaking up with her after they cash in their cargo. The result? “Seven gunshots rang out, Camelia killed Emilio/All the police found was a discarded pistol/Of the money and Camelia, nothing more was ever known.”

The song had previously been adapted into a 1977 film, starring Ana Luisa Peluffo and Valentín Trujillo – though the dynamic was rather different there, with the leading lady being a couple of decades older than her lover. (More than 20 years earlier, Peluffo had caused a significant scandal, when she appeared nude in 1955’s La fuerza del deseo, the first such scene in Mexican cinema) The song was also adapted into an opera in 2008, and has been acknowledged by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as a significant inspiration for his novel, La Reina Del Sur. The author said, “The day I heard Camelia La Tejana, I felt the need to write the lyrics of one of those songs myself.

It’s an interesting decision to set the series in the seventies, at the time the song was released, rather than in the contemporary era. Though, outside of the cars and the preponderance of vintage facial hair, it’s easy to forget this is a period piece. The story is little more than a hodge-podge of telenovela cliches, semi-randomly stitched together. Emilio has a twin brother! Unexpected pregnancies! Long-lost siblings. And vengeance. Damn. So much vengeance, to the point that it was more of a surprise on the rare occasions when somebody didn’t have a deeply-held grudge. Emilio’s wife Alison against Camilla, for killing her husband. Don Trevino’s current wife, Lu, against the previous occupant of the position, Camilla’s mother, for rendering her infertile. Navarro against Camilla, for burning his face at a cockfight. And so on.

Hell, even ten-year-old blind girl Alma (Ana Paula d’León) is seeking revenge on those who killed her parents, before her adoption by Don Treviño. She’s actually one of the more interesting supporting characters, because she seems to have second sight, able to see things before they happen, and act to prevent them. It’s a shame the story lose sinterest in her entirely during the second half, because this concept could have developed in a number of intriguing ways. Someone with Alma’s talent would be a great weapon for any drug cartel, effectively keeping them one step ahead of their enemies. She’s not the only decent supporting character: “Queens of the South” La Nacha in the first half, and Concepción “La Cuquis” Olvera during the latter stages, both demonstrate it’s not just a man’s world.

Unfortunately, these delights are all rather minor. The great bulk of the episodes are unaffecting, not least due to a heroine whose middle names appear to be “Questionable Life Choices”. If there’s a poor decision to be made… Camilla makes it, with an inevitability previously associated only with characters from 19th-century Russian novels. Up until the very last episode, she’s less an action heroine than a reaction heroine, and you would probably need two hands to count all the female characters elsewhere in this show, who are more interesting than Camelia. The series seems tacitly to accept this, hence falling back on a tangle of subplots in which the supposed heroine is only tangentially involved.

The series ended as it had consistently done throughout: another 10-episode arc, ending in interest being piqued once more. [Spoiler warning] Camelia became the head of the Treviño family, and took her revenge on Navarro, spitting out the line, “No man made me a legend. I chose my own life, and I’ll choose my own death.” But there was also a schism, with Alma and Lu heading off, suggesting they would go up against Camelia in a second series. However, it has now been more than three and a half years since the first season ended, and the chances of any sequel seem increasingly slim. It isn’t too surprising. Adapting a three-minute pop song into a movie can be done: Convoy and Harper Valley PTA come to mind as examples. Stretching it into something of this length, however, is likely a remix too far.

Star: Sara Maldonado, Erik Hayser, Andrés Palacios, Dagoberto Gama

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun: Graduation

starstar
“Fails to make the grade.”

The 1981 original movie of which this is a part-remake, part-sequel, made an impression with some solid performances, lurking behind an obviously exploitative title. This? Not so much, despite sharing many of the same elements. For example, both films cast a pop idol singer in the lead role, and the central concept is similar – a schoolgirl finds herself suddenly thrust into the mantle of a Yakuza boss. Here, however, we initially find Izumi Hoshi (Hashimoto) already having gone through the situation she inherited after her uncle was assassinated. She took revenge on his killer’s after which her gang, the Medakas, was disbanded. Now a high-school senior, her sole retained asset is a small coffee-shop, though Izumi has trouble getting the employees, her former minions, to call her “Manager” rather than “Boss.”

She is dragged back into the underworld when a classmate begs for help in her problem with a sleazy “model” agency. It turns out that behind the agency were the gang who were once her enemy, the Hamaguchis, who are also selling drug-laced cookies on her turf. When one of these disco biscuits leads to the death of a schoolmate, Izumi decides to come out of retirement and take up arms once again. Unfortunately, she takes her time about it. Indeed, after the flashback which opens the film, you’ll have to wait 100+ minutes for the next machine-gun moment; in between, it’s entirely sailor-suit. There’s also an extended subplot involving Yasui (Ando), a corporate raider with plans to redevelop the entirety of Izumi’s neighbourhood, whether the inhabitants want it or not.

At virtually two hours long, it has huge pacing problems: that running time isn’t much more than the original, yet here, it drags terribly, and desperately needs to be at least thirty minutes shorter. It doesn’t help that Hashimoto is almost entirely bland, with nothing here to distinguish her from the millions of other idols. [The Hello Kitty tie-in marketing shows more personality, even if they replaced the machine-gun with a pop-gun!] This generic portrayal might make more sense if she was initially still an innocent schoolgirl, as in the original. Here, we’re supposed to believe she’s someone who has been the head of a Yakuza gang and come out the other side? I’m not buying that in the slightest.

In the film’s defense, I’ve read reviews suggesting elements of social satire which are likely not apparent or meaningful to a Western audience, such as the property shenanigans. That doesn’t do much to excuse the main issues, however, and even local critics were largely unimpressed by a largely forgettable feature, that only occasionally reaches the level of moderately interesting. Managing to waste such a cool concept, and in particular the iconic moment where the heroine sprays her automatic weapon while yelling “Kaikan!” – roughly translatable as “Feels so good!” – should be a jailable offense. I guess it’s nice to realize that pointless remakes are not purely a Hollywood problem.

Dir: Kôji Maeda
Star: Kanna Hashimoto, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masanobu Ando, Takurō Ōno

Diamond Cartel


starstar
“Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium”

This Kazakhstani production took its time in seeping out to the West, having originally been filmed over a three-year (!) spell back in 2011-13. While slickly produced, and with some impressive sequences of action, its storyline is garbled nonsense, to the point of almost being incomprehensible, and is utterly without heart or soul. Millionaire crime-boss Musar (Assante) is negotiating the purchase of a renowned diamond from another gang, but the deal goes south, with both diamond and cash ending up in the hands of one of his assassins, Aliya (Mukhamedzhanova). She goes on the run with her former boyfriend (Frandetti), pursued by her more recent boyfriend, who is another one of Musar’s hitmen.

Which would be fine, if that’s what this was. But the film muddies the waters terribly, with secondary plots, a bevy of superfluous characters, and a convoluted flashback structure which explains how Aliya went from a casino croupier to part of Musar’s posse. In some ways, that story would probably have been more interesting that the one actually told, not least because of all the other leather-clad hitwomen he keeps hanging around his lair. Not that they appear to do much; outside of the attempted double-cross at the diamond handover, they are notable by their absence from the action elements, disappointingly.

I should instead talk about the supporting cast, which is far more laden with Western stars than you’d expect from the source. Though by “laden”, this does include people with one scene, such as Michael Madsen. And by “stars”, beyond Assante, I mean people such as Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister. But the name which stands out is Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole – sadly, in his final film role before his death in December 2013. Here, bizarrely, he plays a Kazakhstani customs agent. And it’s not even O’Toole’s own voice, because his performance has been dubbed over, making for a sad end to a stellar career. Though he’s not alone in losing out in post-production, with even the lead actress, as well as her copious voice-over narration, being dubbed too.

The only aspects which pass muster are the technical ones. Mukhammed-Ali seems to have studied at the same school of flashy visuals as the other Kazakhstan director, Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us Wanted and The Arena. It’s hard to deny that the frequent car-chases and shoot-outs here are handled with a decent degree of hyperviolent flair. But this is in pursuit of nothing having any significance. The plot falls somewhere between uninteresting and incoherent, and the audience will have little or no reason to care about even the reasonably photogenic lead, whose story this is supposed to be. It comes over as little more than a poorly-constructed exercise in stunt casting, with a succession of somewhat recognizable names, passing across the screen to trivial effect. I hope they at least got a nice holiday in Kazakhstan out of it.

Dir: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
Star: Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Aleksey Frandetti, Armand Assante, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa
a.k.a. The Whole World at Our Feet

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

starstarstarstarhalf
“Life imitating art, imitating life”

Del Castillo is the undisputed queen of the action telenovela. She made her name as the original “Queen of the South” in one of the most popular entries ever, La Reina Del Sur, and has since followed that up with Ingobernable and Dueños del Paraíso, playing the Mexican First Lady and another ambitious drug dealer. It was while filming the latter, that the stranger than fiction story told in this documentary reached its climax.

As we mentioned at the end of the Reina article, in January 2012, she Tweeted about notorious drug-lord El Chapo. Three and a half years later, after he had been arrested, and subsequently escaped from prison, this led to her and Sean Penn visiting the fugitive, with the plan being to make a film based on his life. Except Penn turned it into an interview for Rolling Stone, the Mexican government got very upset with Del Castillo, and when El Chapo was recaptured, they said it was largely a result of the Del Castillo/Penn visit – with all that implies. The actress was investigated for money laundering, the charges being dropped only a couple of days ago, and is still largely persona non grata in her home country.

The three-part series tells events from her perspective. and even though she was a producer on it, Del Castillo doesn’t necessarily come out clean. From her first Tweet, she seems a little naive. “Let’s traffic love,” she says to a man who supposedly told authorities subsequently, he had killed between two and three thousand people. It feels as if Del Castillo believed the narcocorrida hype: bosses like El Chapo are often seen as folk heroes in Mexico, along the lines of Robin Hood. How much their social works are genuine, and how much practical business sense, is open to question. She does say she understands the cinematic meaning of the word “cut”, and lets go of the characters she plays. Yet I also suspect Kate may have felt that playing a trafficker on TV made her El Chapo’s “equal” somehow.

You can certainly argue that journeying into the heart of the Mexican countryside to meet the most wanted man on the world, who seems to have a crush on you, shows poor judgment. On the other hand, she does come over as courageous. While you can question her ideals, it’s hard to say she’s not entirely committed to them, regardless of the personal cost. Even now, you sense the personal cost has, if anything, probably hardened her resolve. I can’t blame her at all for that: the Mexican government appear to have engaged in a campaign of harassment of Del Castillo, little short of a vendetta. This involves everything up to, and including, fabricating text messages between her and El Chapo, with the intention of damaging her reputation and credibility.

Penn comes off little better. Though we don’t hear directly from the actor – he refused to take part in the documentary – the evidence presented here seems to suggest he used her for his own ends. Most damningly, he got journalist accreditation from Rolling Stone for himself and the film producers who also went with them – but not Del Castillo. And while he may not have directly or wittingly informed the authorities of their plans, it’s quite possible it was through his circle they became aware of the trip. In a subsequent media statement about the film, Penn’s camp didn’t hold back, saying, “This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.” I think it’s safe to say, if Kate ever gets to make her El Chapo movie, Penn will not be taking part.

While mostly talking heads and old news footage, it does a decent job of weaving the narrative, despite the lack of contemporary input from two-thirds of the people in the photo above. It was still interesting enough to make Chris become one of Del Castillo’s 3.5 million followers on her bilingual Twitter feed. Now, if only I can get her into watching Dueños del Paraíso

Dir: Carlos Armella

Violent Instinct

starstarstarhalf
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Valerie Graves (Osborne) is a powder-keg in her mid-twenties, barely surviving from job to job, and troubled by violent dreams. At a party, she meets Andy Cheney, who runs a locksmith company, and who offers her an admin job there. She eventually discovers the company is a front for far more questionable business, and eagerly accepts Andy’s offer of working on that side, collecting debts and enforcing his authority on those lower down the food-chain. But when one of her missions ends up hitting too close to home, she decides she’s going to quit. Her boss doesn’t take kindly to that, and stiffs her of the final payment she needs to set up life somewhere else. Which, needless to say, does not sit too well with Valerie.

This is a seriously grubby and downbeat spiral, which deserves credit for being largely unremitting and consistent in tone. However, that isn’t enough, in itself, to make for interesting viewing, not least because there’s little here to which the viewer can hitch their interest. Valerie is not a nice person. Which isn’t necessary a show-stopper. as that deficiency in warmth of character, can be made up for in a number of different ways. A charismatic lead, compelling back-story or interesting arc over the course of the film, would all help give reasons to watch. Unfortunately, none of them are present here: at least, not in sufficient quantities to take the audience along.

Osborne isn’t bad in  the central role – though she makes about the least convincing interior design consultant (her apparent initial job!) I’ve ever seen. She’s certainly different from the stereotypical mob enforcer you might expect, and have seen elsewhere. Valerie is roughly equal measures of tattoos, piercings and spiky attitude, with no genuine relationships to speak of, save for Tina (Ryan). And she’s probably even more anti-social and depressed than the anti-heroine, which I guess makes them perfect for each other. But I can’t say I was even remotely convinced by Rowley and his crew as supposedly hardcore gangsters. It’s often a problem with micro-budget movies, that the makers operate from a small circle of available talent, in a certain type. There’s a struggle when they need to fill roles outside that type, and this definitely hampers them here.

There are two versions of this floating around. This review is based on the 79-minute producer’s cut, which was edited down from the 124-minute version called Primordial. Among the apparent changes were some quite significant ones, including taking an ambiguous final scene and transplanting it to the start of the film, where it becomes a dream sequence. It also “shortens or removes many of the humorous scenes”, which is likely a good thing, given that the remorseless intensity is likely the film’s strongest suit. Still I’m not convinced enough I’ve missed out, to track down the longer version. Though must confess, I am somewhat intrigued by “the fish hook sex act” apparently included in the extended cut…

Dir: Eric Widing
Star: Marylee Osborne, Erin R. Ryan, Christopher Rowley, Adam Clevenger
a.k.a. Primordial

Huff

starstarstar
“Brings home the bacon.”

A modern-day update of The Three Little Pigs, this works better than you might think. The wolf is “Huff” (O’Connell), a really warped individual whose interests appear to be religion, drugs and molesting his three step-daughters. Bit of an odd combination. Their mother, Lorelei (Elina Madison), is a largely absent stripper, who seems not to care too much that her boyfriend’s attention have now turned from her oldest daughter, Brixi (Bollinger), to the youngest one, Shay (Stefanko). But when Huff prepares his big score, using cash “borrowed” from his mistress’s ex-husband (or something like that – the relationships here are so complicated, you need a chart to keep track), Lorelei sees her opportunity, sending the three girls away with the money. That leaves Huff in serious trouble, and he’s soon after them, intent on retrieving the cash. Huff is indeed going to puff… on his asthma inhaler.

Yeah, that’s a bit of an over-reach, and you feel it might have worked better, had the makers not apparently felt obligated to stick so close to their source. Contrast, say, Freeway, which was a similarly modern version of a fairly tale, specifically Little Red Riding Hood – but had no qualms about discarding elements that didn’t fit, and was all the better for it. Here, even the daughters’ names are clunkily shoehorned in to the narrative; as well as Brixi and Shay, there’s Styx. Okay, I think we get the concept: even for a stripper mom, those are a bit much. Fortunately, when it’s not being incredibly contrived, this is a decent enough slab of trashy fun, located right at the bottom of the social pecking order – although everyone has far better teeth, and are generally much more attractive than you’d expect. This is a compromise I’m happy to live with, since it is clearly not intended to be Winter’s Bone.

O’Connell was The Batchelor in the show’s seventh series, in 2005, so guess it’s a bit of a change in pace and content here. He certainly makes for an ultra-evil villain, right from the get-go when he’s telling his (at that point, extremely young) daughters a particularly sordid tale from the Bible. Indeed, it’s kinda remarkable that the sisters have managed to survive with any fragment of their morality intact. Yet, on more than one occasion, Brixi is prepared to imperil herself to protect her siblings – a cooler head might have considered saner options. If you know the fairy-tale, you’ll already know how things progress, and the story follows its inspiration closely, up to the point where Huff and Brixi face off. It’s a finale that really doesn’t deserve the coda it receives, which seems to render much of what has gone before pointless, or close to. But as a tacky grab-bag of low-life scumminess, where an unpleasant death is never far away, it appears more than happy to wallow in the mud along with its “little pigs”. It does so adequately enough to be a guilty pleasure as a result.

Dir: Paul Morrell
Star: Marie Bollinger, Charlie O’Connell, Jenna Stone, Elly Stefanko
a.k.a. Big Bad Wolf

Queen of the South, season two

starstarstarstarhalf
“Queen vs. Queen”

The first series was the story of Teresa Mendoza’s fall and rise. From a comfortable life in Mexico, she dropped all the way across the border, to a drug mule at the very bottom of the organization belonging to Camila Vargas (Falcon), before beginning her climb up that cartel’s ladder. The series ended with her becoming Camila’s trusted lieutenant, as her cartel fought for its independence from estranged husband, Don Epifanio. In the second season, the landscape shifts, radically. Indeed, by the end, virtually everything you knew – or thought you knew – has been shaken up.  In particular, the relationship between Camila and Teresa falls apart, as Teresa looks to assert her independence. Initially, Camila is very much on the back foot, having been cut off from both her supplies and her distribution network, and has to rebuild both.

This task requires quite some effort on the part of both her and Teresa, and brings them into contact with some strange characters. On the distribution side, is an eccentric smuggler who calls himself “King George.” He does have a tough streak, but is a quirky character who feels more like a leftover hippie, more amusing than a real threat. That can not be said of Bolivian drug-lord El Santo (played by Steven Bauer, whom my wife says to remind you is Cuban!). He’s part shaman, part Jim Jones, leading his devoted cult of followers through a psycho-chemical process that leaves them… changed. And before he agrees to deal with Camila, he insists Teresa goes through that process. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The episodes set in Bolivia were definitely eye-opening (an interesting contrast to the Bolivian Fighting Cholitas!), and Santo’s police associate, La Capitana, was almost as bad-ass as Teresa.

But they contributed to what I found was the main problem this season: a lack of focus. The plot seemed to be getting pulled in too many directions: a strength of the first season was it felt unequivocally like Teresa’s story. That didn’t feel the case here. While some of those elements were solid enough – Camila remains a fascinating character, worthy of her own show – I could probably have done, say, without the adventures of her and Epifanio’s bratty teenage daughter. It took until the final episode for that to become relevant; until then, it was more a chore than a pleasure. Similarly, the love triangle between Teresa, colleague-at-arms James (Gadiot) and her former, not-so-dead boyfriend, Guero, was all too obvious.

However, it’s still relentlessly gritty, and the way the relationships between the characters changed over time was very well-plotted. It’s done gradually, so that you don’t realize how former allies have become mortal enemies, until the betrayal occurs. Here, the pivotal moment was Teresa discovering papers proving Camila had set her up, dead in the firing line of a DEA investigation. This finally proved to Teresa what we had suspected all along: that Camila was simply using her, as and when necessary or beneficial, and was undeserving of the loyalty which Teresa had shown here.

The final episode confirmed the battle lines have been redrawn, and sets the stage for series three (the show’s renewal was already announced, last month). To quote the program’s showrunner, Natalie Chaidez, this season “was about Teresa learning what it takes to run a drug cartel from Camila Vargas… Camila taught her some good things, and she taught her some bad things. Now, Teresa has reached the end of the season ready, armed with all of the lessons Camila has taught her.” Mission accomplished, and with the pair now on opposing sides – and with Camila having very good reason to hate Teresa – I’m already anticipating the next series.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

Female Fight Squad

starstarstarhalf
“Clubbed to death.”

This was originally known as Female Fight Club. I presume the title was changed after a strongly-worded letter from David Fincher’s lawyers, perhaps to evoke thoughts of its star’s stunt work on Suicide Squad. It’s interesting, because Amy Johnston’s previous feature, Lady Bloodfight also underwent a similar title change before release. Unfortunately, this isn’t as good. It reminds me a bit of the films Zoë Bell appeared in, early on in her career. She was usually the best thing in them, but they still weren’t up to much, because Bell was still finding her feet as an actress. Similarly here, there’s no denying Johnston’s talents in motion, yet this does not offer a good setting in which they can be appreciated.

For where Bloodfight played to her strength and packed in wall-to-wall action, here she’s required to do the dramatic lifting here and… Well, let’s just say, when you’re out-acted by Dolph Lundgren, it’s never a good thing.  The story is no better than boilerplate nonsense as well. Rebecca (Johnston) is a former fighter who now works in an animal shelter, because cute puppies. She is forced out of retirement to help her sister, Kate (Palm), who is a hundred grand in debt to some very nasty people. They are led by the creepy Landon Jones (Goyos) and his well-stocked freezer, which is used not solely to store his chosen variety of ice-cream. And he just happens to run an underground all-women fight ring, which Rebecca can enter. What are the odds? Meanwhile, the sisters’ father (Lundgren) is in prison, serving time for a crime he may or may not have committed, and has his own issues to deal with there.

Cue the rolling of eyes. It all rumbles along, from one cliché to the next, and if you’ve seen as many straight-to-video action flicks of the past couple of decades as I have, you’ll understand why this one largely failed to register. The only saving grace are the fights, which are well-enough staged. Johnston clearly knows her stuff, and there is good support from other women with a similar background, such as Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, playing Landon’s top fighter, known as “Claire the Bull”.  The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these scenes, and the film escalates, inexplicably, to a fight between Rebecca and Landon. The latter was never established as any kind of bad-ass previously, so this makes little or no sense.

I’m still excited to see where Johnston goes from things like this. Right now, she has some room for improvement, both on the acting side and in her choice of projects. But both of these are areas where more experience should naturally lead to positive development. That’s exactly what happened with regard to Bell, who has worked her way up to become of the more reliable action actresses. I get the feeling Johnston has much the same potential, and there’s certainly room for them both in the field.

Dir: Miguel A. Ferrer
Star: Amy Johnston, Cortney Palm, Rey Goyos, Dolph Lundgren