Female Fight Squad

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“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

From Parts Unknown: Fight Like a Girl

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“Ringpocalypse now.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the first attempt to cross over between the worlds of zombies and pro wrestling. There was also the imaginatively-named Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies, which included Roddy Piper, Kurt Angle and Matt Hardy. This is much lower-budget, Australian and almost certainly contains nobody of whom you’ll have heard. But what both movies share is that… they aren’t actually very good. And that’s a shame, because I’m pretty much the ideal target audience, being a fan of both wrestling and horror. That this one has a heroine, should be another factor in support of it, but it ends up falling apart and devolving into a second half that is little more than a procession of uninteresting set-pieces.

Though in fairness, the makers deserve credit for persevering with production in the face of numerous calamities. The IMDb page lists a few of these, which should stand as a warning to anyone thinking about venturing into the creation of low-budget cinema:

The first edit was completed by the end of 2009 but, due to inexperience and lack of technical know-how, it was completed without location audio… Most of FPU was shot in an abandoned warehouse with no power, requiring a large generator to run lights, the noise of which can be heard in every shot at this location. By 2011 location audio had been re-synced but due to a falling out with those responsible was never delivered to the producers.

During production the director’s car was written off by a drunk off-duty police officer, the insurance money was just enough to allow shooting to continue… In a pivotal scene depicting the death of a main character the actor playing the part of the killer failed to turn up and didn’t return calls. An attempt was made to shoot the scene from a first person point-of-view, but in post production a random beam falling from out of shot was added to create the death scene instead.

All of which is likely more interesting than the finished film, unfortunately. Still, all production problems aside, what of the plot? Charlie (Dwyer) is the daughter of Buffalo Daddy, a wrestler who died in the ring. She’s now training in his footsteps, while working at a video-game company. Their current game, “From Parts Unknown”, involves the use of nanobots to… Well, it’s a bit vague on the details, but to cut to the chase, the nanobots get loose, turning everyone they encounter into flesh-munching monsters. It’s up to Charlie, and some of her pals, to fend off the impending zombie apocalypse.

There are occasional moments that are fun, such as the guy who seizes the chance to channel his inner Bruce Campbell, gleefully quoting Army of Darkness. However, it topples over far too often into self-indulgent stuff, that I’m sure had everyone involved cracking up on set, but triggers less than a faint smile in the viewer. The action scenes are disappointing too: I was expecting to see zombies getting suplexed through tables ‘n’ stuff – instead, it’s just the usual, humdrum removing of the head or destroying the brain, which we’ve seen too often before. I won’t give up though; maybe the third undead ‘rassling film will prove to be the charm. They just need to get Lucha Underground involved somehow.

Dir: Daniel Armstrong
Star: Jenna Dwyer, Elke Berry, Mick Preston, Josh Futcher

Fight Valley

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“Ring around the poses.”

The results of bringing female MMA fighters to the screen have been a bit mixed, shall we say. Gina Carano has looked decent in her films, but Ronda Rousey’s performances have been roundly criticized, and her Mile 22 project appears dead in the water. The performance by the recently retired from MMA Miesha Tate, which is likely the film’s major selling-point, rates… somewhere in the middle. She doesn’t disgrace herself – but that may be partly because there is no shortage of other weaknesses to criticize here. Tate is convincing in her role – yet since she’s playing a mixed martial-artist, it’s hardly proof of any acting ability. But I guess, everyone has to start somewhere, and a thinly-disguised version of yourself is a good place to begin.

The film’s heroine, though, is Windsor (Celek), part of a separated family. She lives with her mother in a well-to-do part of New Jersey; her sister, Tory, lives with Dad in a far more dangerous neck of the woods, and is persistently getting into street brawls. Tory asks Windsor for money and is spurned, only to turn up beaten to death later. Windsor goes slumming to investigate, with the help of Tory’s lesbian lover, Duke (O’Brien), and discovers her late sister was involved in underground fights. In the time-honoured trope of B-grade martial-arts films, Windsor decides to strap on the gloves so she can find and take revenge on Tory’s killer, convincing the reluctant Jabs (and this character is where Tate comes in) to train her for this purpose.

According to the IMDb, the budget here was twenty-seven million dollars. If true, I have no clue quite where that went, because this is absolutely the kind of film that could be churned out for a a million and change. It’s not like there are any name stars here, unless you count the bevy of UFC people who show up in minor roles: as well as Tate, the film also includes Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm and Cindy Dandois, among others. Though despite the poster shown, the non-Tate roles are barely cameos. Certainly, the script consists of little more than a selection of random clichés, as it lumbers towards a conclusion you would have to be legally blind not to see approaching. Hawk’s background in music videos is painfully apparent, and O’Brien is the only person here who comes out with much real credit, playing Duke in a way that is credible and, hence, surprisingly scary. She isn’t someone whose drink you’d want to spill in a bar, put it that way.

What sinks the movie is Celek, who is woeful: thoroughly unconvincing at every step of her implausible journey from Disney princess to hard-as-nails brawler, supposedly capable of going toe-to-toe with Cyborg. If they’d kept the film on the streets, since it does a semi-decent job of capturing a world where everyone operates on a hair-trigger, and had Duke trying to revenge her lover’s death, this might have had a chance of being more than the thoroughly forgettable project, deserving little more than a quick, straight-to-video death.

Dir: Rob Hawk
Star: Susie Celek, Erin O’Brien, Miesha Tate, Cabrina Collesides

The Frontier

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“A cash and grab story.”

Laine (Donahue) is on the run. From what isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to be something to do with the death of an oil executive. Whatever the reason, she’s staying off the highways and keeping to the back roads. One morning, she wakes up beside The Frontier, a diner/motel owned and operated by Luanne (Lynch), who offers Laine employment, in return for board and lodging. Laine initially rejects the offer, then discovers some other guests are apparently there in the aftermath of an armoured car robbery, which netted them two million dollars. Laine therefore decides it’s in her best interests to stick around, and begins a game of chess with the perpetrators, to see if she can end up walking away with their ill-gotten gains.

Opening in a shot of Laine, lighting a cigarette with her blood-stained hands, the story then unfolds in flashback. The style seems deliberately vague in terms of era; some aspects of this seem right out of the seventies, while others appear to be throwbacks to an earlier, film noir approach. There are definitely elements of David Lynch here – not just in the original title, Thieves’ Highway, also from the dialogue and a sense of lurking evil beneath a thin surface layer of everyday normality. Maybe The Hateful 8, with a group of players of uncertain agenda, forced to interact? You could even claim some Lars Von Trier here, in the way that the movie almost entirely takes place in a single location, often feeling like an adaptation of a play – perhaps one where the buildings are defined entirely by chalk lines, drawn on the stage.

Unfortunately, most of this fails to be as interesting as the sources it’s trying to imitate. The script makes the mistake of thinking that a sheer quantity of duplicity and double-crosses, will somehow make up for there being no particular reason to give a damn about most of the characters. Their obvious lack of honesty, everyone holding the cards close to their chest, makes it hard for the audience to get on board with any of them – particularly Laine, who is clearly intended to be the audience’s focus. Though Donahue, overall, isn’t bad in the role. She delivers an interesting mix of steely determination and street wit that, if not likeable, is always watchable, offering an acceptable twist on the typical femme fatale.

The rest of the cast feel more like standard tropes from that genre: the gruff, brutish thug; the ditzy moll; the fake “gentleman”, and so on, things you’ve likely seen far too often before, and neither the script nor their portrayals do enough to make them come alive. Things meander along to the entirely expected, bloody conclusion promised by that opening shot, and it feels longer instead of shorter than its relatively brisk 88 minute running-time. While there’s some promise here, and signs of talent, it would be a large stretch to say either are fulfilled.

Dir: Oren Shai
Star: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver, Izabella Miko

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

First Squad

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“The first Russian anime mockumentary, I presume.”

firstsquadA strong concept here. Indeed, perhaps too strong for a feature which runs not much over an hour, credits to credits. It’s set in 1942 Russian, when Soviet forces are struggling to beat back the Nazi invasion. Behind the mundane warfare is a supernatural struggle, with both sides using occult methods to their advantage. The German Ahnenerbe group [which was a real thing] seek to revive the spirit of Baron von Wolff, a knight from the Middle Ages and his ghost army, while Section Six of Russian intelligence, put together a team of psychics as a counter-measure. The Soviet squad is wiped out, safe for 14-year-old Nadya (Chebaturkina), but the Russians have created a machine which allows her to enter the afterlife, and contact her late colleagues. With a battle looming which both sides know will be a “moment of truth” – a tipping point in history – the lines are drawn for a confrontation in both the real and paranormal fields of conflict.

Animated in Japan, but with a Russian cast and crew, the film also includes live-action interviews with “historians” and “veterans” designed to give the impression this is based on actual events, beginning with historically plausible stories and gradually moving into the occult. It’s an interesting idea, though some viewers may find these interludes take them out of the story, and you wonder if the time would have been better spent progressing things – some elements just end without resolution, such as the Nazi twins sent to assassinate Nadya. It feels almost like a pilot for a series, doing a good job of building characters or setting, and pointing the way forward; it’s better at asking  questions than answering them, as part of a complete story. The final fight between Nadya and the Baron is disappointingly short, despite the heroine’s apparent skill with a sword, though I did appreciate her colleague Zena’s enthusiastic use of a flame-thrower.

It’s a rich universe, with potential that is undeniable, and its share of effective sequences, such as when Nadya is being pursued through the streets of Moscow by the Nazi twins, or skeletal “zombie knights,” riding into battle, in a way which reminded me of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies. On the other hand, the apparently unfinished nature of the storyline is a shame, with an excess of loose ends and ideas that are set-up and never executed. After seven years, I think the chances are sadly slim of ever getting a sequel that will address this problem, and what you’re left with is a somewhat frustrating exercise in impressive imagination. The entire film has been made available by the distributor on YouTube, if you are interested in seeing more, after watching the trailer below.

Dir: Yoshiharu Ashino
Star (voice): Elena Chebaturkina, Michael Tikhonov, Ludmila Shuvalova, Damir Eldarov

Full Strike

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“Shaolin Shuttlecocks”

fullstrikeThis mediocre sports comedy seems to want to do for badminton what Shaolin Soccer did for the beautiful game. However, it falls short on just about every level, delivering little more than a shallow series of cliches. Former champion Ng Kau-sau (Ho), a.k.a. “Beast”, was drummed out of the sport ten years ago for anger management issues. However, her love of the game never died, and is rekindled when she bumps into a trio of former armed robbers, led by Lau Dan (Cheng). They have reformed and taken up the sport, under the tuition of an alcoholic former star, Master Champion Chik.

This is much to the consternation of the locals, who believe “Once a thief, always a thief.” They set up an opposing team, with their own coach, and both sign up for the Fantastic Five Asia-Pacific Badminton Tournament in Macau. Meanwhile, Lau Dan’s old buddies are trying to lure him back into a life of crime, and are plotting a raid on the Macau casinos the same night. What are the odds? About the same as both teams making it to the tournament final and facing off in a climactic showdown. Which, in this kind of film, is probably close to 100%.

There are a bunch of problems here, starting with the lead character, who isn’t exactly sympathetic. Let’s just say, her nickname is justified. The film then diverts into a middle section which seems almost to forget about her, being more concerned with Lau Dan. The height of the comedic stylings on view is when Master Champion Chik throws up, delivering the longest and grossest projectile vomit scene since The Meaning of Life. I will admit, I actually laughed. Still, it gives you a new appreciation for the true genius of Stephen Chow, who makes this kind of “plucky under-dog” comedy look easy. He combines plot, characters and, yes, jokes with grace into a consistent whole.

This never achieves anything like the same degree of cohesiveness, lurching uneasily from broad comedy to heartfelt drama. Then we reach the tournament, which covers most of the film’s second half. This involves a contrived version of badminton, requiring teams to substitute personnel half-way through the game. Why? The sole reason is, because the plot demands it. There’s no sense of escalation here either, unlike Shaolin Soccer. If you’ve seen one slow-motion shot of a shuttlecock crossing marginally above the net, or landing just inside the line, you’ve seen… The last 20 minutes of the movie to be honest.  The idea here isn’t without potential, and most of the personnel involved here have proven their talent elsewhere. The actual end product, unfortunately, falls well short of delivering.

Dir: Derek Kwok and Henri Wong
Star: Josie Ho, Ekin Cheng, Ronald Cheng, Tse Kwan-ho

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

The Fate of Lee Khan

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“Out of the frying-pan, inn to the fire…”

leekhanProbably best to start with a quick history lesson. In the fourteenth century, part of China was under Mongol rule, but there was a growing movement to oust the occupiers. Leading the battle against the rebels is the titular general, and it appears he has a mole inside their headquarters, who has arranged to pass Khan a crucial map that could derail the rebellion entirely. Learning in advance that Khan will be staying at the Spring Inn, a venue owned by one of their own, Wendy (Li), the freedom fighters set in motion a daring plan to steal back the map, and assassinate Khan before he can take advantage of the information. However, it turns out – as usual! – that there are others at the inn who have agendas of their own, operating undercover on both sides. So when Khan and his sister finally show up, they may be  well-aware of what lies in wait for them…

A lot to enjoy here, not least Wendy’s newly-recruited four-pack of waitresses, who all have shady pasts of their own, including a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist, and who are no less adept than Wendy with their fists and feet. The pickpocket, who swipes a pearl off the front of a customer’s hat as he plays dice, is played by Angela Mao in a small but significant role, as it’s her attempt to steal the map out of Khan’s locked case that triggers the climactic outburst of violence. There’s also Khan’s sister, Wan’er (right), played by another King Hu regular, Xu Feng, though this is Hu’s only work to be so heavily femme centered. The first half reminds me of Dragon Inn, made by Hu six years previously (and remade in the nineties), with its tale of shenanigans at a remote inn, on which a motley crew of heroes and villains descend. While generally entertaining, it’s somewhat hard to keep track of who’s doing what and for whose side.

When Khan shows up, the entire dynamic changes, with this movie developing a much clearer focus. Wendy and her allies try to regain control of the key map, while unsure how much Khan and Wan’er know about their plans, and who is on their side. Eventually, one of the rebels is caught in an untenable position and is summarily executed – though Wan’er “charitably” donates a hundred taels of silver “in order to bury her properly.” Such an obvious act of provocation will not go unpunished, and it’s time for all martial arts hell to break lose (or, at least, as close as it could given the era – this was just before Bruce Lee blew the doors off the genre). All of the women here have a strict zero-tolerance policy for nonsense, and are entirely capable of handling themselves. To have one such character would be impressive, but the full half-dozen we have here, indeed pushes this into the stratosphere for its time.

Dir: King Hu
Star: Li Lihua, Han Ying Chieh, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao

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