The Policewoman, by Justin W. M. Roberts

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

“…courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

Debut author Justin W. M. Roberts and I became acquainted recently in the Action Heroine Fans group that I help moderate on Goodreads. I noticed his mentions of this novel there, and was interested enough to accept his generous offer of a hardcover review copy; but no guarantee of a good review (or a review at all) was asked or expected. This book had no trouble earning its stars on its merits! For much of the time while I was reading it, I expected to give it four and a half stars, but after the impact of the ending, there’s no way I could give it any less than five.

“Write about what you know” is an axiom Roberts clearly takes seriously. British born (and a graduate of Hull Univ.), his father was an army general, and the future author seems to have been what’s sometimes called in U.S. slang an “army brat,” who grew up in close proximity to military bases and traveling around the world to different postings. For the past 25 years, he’s made his home in Indonesia; this book is set partly there and in the British Isles, and like the author, his titular heroine straddles the two cultures.

He also appears to have a background in police and/or military counter-terrorist services. His knowledge of S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) terms and procedures, firearms specs, and both British and Indonesian police and military organization and organizational culture and traditions is extensive, to put it mildly, and he puts this to use in spades throughout the book. It’s noted at the beginning of the book that almost all of these tactics are “intentionally disguised” to protect police and military officers (so that baddies can’t use the book as a text to learn what to expect!), but it still has a very realistic feel. We’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff here; readers who need and want technical accuracy won’t be disappointed. For other readers like me, who don’t know one brand of firearm from another and have little technical knowledge of covert operations, much of this information will go over our heads, but it will still give a feeling of verisimilitude, and maybe impart some knowledge that will stick! (Seven and a half pages of glossaries of organizational “alphabet soup” and British, Indonesian and Irish military/police slang and terms and Gaelic –here spelled “Gaeilge”– phrases are provided; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll refer to them frequently.)

To write a gripping tale of action adventure, of course, one needs more than technical knowledge. Such a story requires a fundamental, high-stakes conflict with moral issues that matter, involving believable characters that the reader can actually care about. Roberts delivers that here, too. His story is set in 2026, in order to allow for the full effects of planned downsizing of the British army, scheduled to be fully effected in 2020, and for the related rise of a new player in international drug trafficking, the Irish Drug Cartel. The book opens with a grisly and highly attention-grabbing torture scene that (once the reader interprets it in the light of the information that follows in the first chapters) establishes the moral polarities very clearly.

Heroine Sarah –half Indonesian, half European, from a military family, and raised partly in England– still in her 20s, is a high-ranking and very capable officer in the paramilitary wing of the Indonesian National Police. She’s seconded early on to Interpol and sent to England to join the task force battling the Cartel. It’s no exaggeration to say she’s one of the best, and best-drawn, action heroines I’ve encountered in fiction. The other important characters are also vividly realized –Niall, the Cartel’s pet psychopath and torturer, is as radically evil a figure as you’ll ever encounter in a book. (There are so many secondary ones that some of their names and sometimes organizational affiliations are hard to keep track of, but you don’t actually have to –in those cases, I just sort of went with the flow. :-) )

There’s a lot of action, but significant character development and interaction as well. (Some readers found the first four chapters slow-paced or even boring, because of the introductions and setting up of the situation, but I honestly did not; I thought Roberts did a good job of holding interest there.) While I’ve classified this as action-adventure rather than mystery, the author effectively uses some techniques of mystery fiction in places to hide clues in plain sight. Some parts of this book are profoundly moving, and it packs a very real emotional wallop. The narration is in third-person, present tense mode; this took some getting used to, but I actually adjusted to it pretty quickly. A quibble might be that some Cartel members are more loose-lipped and careless than would probably be the case in real life, but that is a minor quibble.

Roberts’ online author profile notes that he’s “an active promoter of secular humanism.” This particular book, however, doesn’t grind any sort of philosophical ax. If it has any messages, they would be recognition that drug use and drug trafficking is a pestilent scourge on the world, and high admiration and respect for the often-maligned work of the brave men and women of the police and military who put their lives on the line to stand against it. (Interestingly, Sarah is a professed Catholic, and that aspect of her character is treated respectfully. Granted, it’s clear that her religious beliefs, as far as they go, are more a matter of birthright church membership than a life-transforming personal spiritual commitment –but she does tangibly demonstrate that they go further than just empty words.)

Some content warnings are needed here. I mentioned an opening torture scene. There are some other torture scenes here as well, all of them graphic, and the violence is grim and bloody, with a lot of messy deaths. The author would say the violent content isn’t any more graphic than it has to be, and (unlike Niall), he clearly doesn’t take pleasure in it; but this isn’t a read for the squeamish. While there’s not much bad language in the first three or so chapters, there gets to be a lot of it later, with quite a bit of use of the f-word. This does reflect English-speaking cop and military sub-culture, as well as the speech of low-life thugs, and also, to a degree, contemporary secular British speech (which apparently has coarsened even more than American speech in recent decades). While there’s some unmarried sex here, the sex between the good characters is loving and not really explicit; but there’s a lot of locker-room–style sexual banter that’s R (or X)-rated. Some female readers might also feel that the book suffers some from the “male gaze” syndrome, especially in the references to a photo of Sarah in a bikini.

In summary, I’d recommend this novel for action fans generally, not just for those who particularly like action heroines (though many of the latter will agree that Sarah’s “the ultimate action heroine!”). The content issues, IMO, don’t detract from its very real merits (and might not bother many readers at all); and the author deserves particular credit for bringing to life an admirable heroine of mixed race, a demographic that gets way too little representation in English-language action fiction.

Author: Justin W. M. Roberts
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Atomic Blonde

“Truly a nuclear option.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new action queen in town. With Angelina Jolie apparently abdicating that title after Salt, the throne was vacant. Theron had already made a very solid case in Mad Max: Fury Road, then solidified it in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. But there were still doubts: could she hold the true focus of a genuinely action-driven film? There are doubts no more, for Atomic Blonde gives us Theron in the role of Lorraine Broughton, the baddest-ass heroine since The Bride in the first Kill Bill.

She’s an agent of British intelligence, sent to Berlin in the very last days of the Communist regime. Her mission is to retrieve a list which details the identities of every Soviet agent in the field, provided by a Russian defector. Before she has even met her contact there, David Percival (McAvoy), chief at the Berlin station, Broughton has been made by the Russians. Turns out, they have a mole, codenamed “Satchel”, who will stop at nothing to prevent the list from making it into Western hands, thereby revealing their identity. The exhortation of one of her bosses on her way out the door in London, “Trust no-one,” proves to be entirely accurate, as she makes her way across a landscape formed largely of moral rubble from the imminently collapsing Berlin Wall.

The story unfolds in flashback, during a debriefing in London, in which a severely battered Broughton recounts the events that unfolded as she tried to track down the list – and when that proves impossible, the defector, since he claims to have memorized its contents. It’s a perpetually shifting quicksand of allegiances, not least Percival, who has been in the city so long as to have “gone native”. There’s also Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), a French agent for whom Broughton falls, though it’s never clear whether their resulting spot of canoodling is for the purposes of her mission. It’s certainly not difficult on the eye [Boutella may be an action heroine to watch in future, having impressed both as the spring-loaded Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service and one of the better things about recent Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy].

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know why this was my most anticipated film of the year, and the action is every bit as slickly brutal as you’d expect from the co-director of John Wick – Leitch wasn’t credited there because the Directors’ Guild of America don’t like dual credits. This is ferociously hard-hitting stuff, clear from the opening scene, and escalating steadily thereafter. Broughton’s credentials are equally apparent immediately, as she escapes a kidnap attempt on the way from Berlin Airport, brawling her way viciously out of a car’s back seat. Yet this is merely an appetizer for what is to come, and one sequence in particular.

The scene in question sees Broughton escorting the defector, who has already been wounded. They take refuge in an apartment building only to be followed there by a bevy of Russian agents, whom she has to fend off with bullets, fists and even a convenient corkscrew. It’s nine minutes long, and appears to be shot in a single, unbroken take. Key word “appears” – if you look closely, you will likely be able to spot the moments where they cleverly blend the shots (about 20 or so, according to Leitch) together while the camera pans, tracks and zooms through the building. It’s still likely the most intense and hardcore battle in action heroine history, with the participants selling every blow impeccably. This is awesome, ground breaking stuff, and I haven’t enjoyed a scene so much since – again – Kill Bill, Volume 1.

For I’ve seen hard-hitting and inventively choreographed fights before. I’ve seen well-shot and technically impressive fights before. It’s the combination here which is almost unparalleled. Maybe the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger is the only one that comes close, though it had a very different kind of artistry, one that was based on grace and fluidity. [Outside our genre, I was additionally reminded of the car chase in Children of Men, which was apparently an inspiration] This is Lorraine Broughton, doing absolutely whatever she needs to survive, from second to second and moment to moment. It’s raw, animalistic and moves the bar for future action heroines to an entirely new level.

This is actually a problem, because it there’s still a good chunk of the film to go, and nothing the rest of the way comes close. As a result, there’s a sense of letdown from the adrenaline high, even if the final attempt of the Russians to kill Broughton is by no means bad. I’m hard pushed to find anything else of much significance to criticize here. We’ve got an Oscar-winning actress going full-on into the old ultraviolence? What’s not to love? Admittedly, the actual spy plot is a good deal less inventive and original than just about every other aspect here. But it’s merely a backdrop, the canvas on which Leitch and Theron paint their bloody masterpiece. Oh, and if you can’t get permission to use Ministry’s version of Stigmata, find something else. Do not use Marilyn Manson to cover it. He is not Al Jourgensen.

Otherwise, though, I should devote a full paragraph to the soundtrack, since it kicked ass, almost as much as Charlize. I’m a child of the eighties. It was the soundtrack to my teenage and college years, and I even spent some time in Berlin, on both side of the wall, in the middle of the decade. While that would be a couple of years before the events depicted here, it still brought back a heck of a lot of memories. Part of this might be the music, which plays like they rifled my CD collection. It starts with New Order’s Blue Monday, then segues into the opening credits which play out over David Bowie’s theme from Cat People, as Broughton stalks through the London streets. If not the first time that has been purloined for another movie – Quentin Tarantino used it, inexplicably, for World War 2 movie Inglourious Basterds – it works a lot better here. Consider me sold.

This is an action heroine in its most literal of terms. Broughton has often been compared to James Bond, yet she’s even more cool, detached and almost emotionless in some ways. It absolutely deserves a franchise, with its central character chewing her way through post-Cold War history like a shark in human form, always moving forward – and if you get in the way, it will end up the worse for you. Every step is absolutely purposeful and deliberate, a means to an end, and that end is her mission. Broughton does not fuck around, and neither does this film. Such single-minded determination can only be applauded.

Dir: David Leitch
Star: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones

Modesty Blaise, by Peter O’Donnell

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

modesty1British author Peter O’Donnell created the iconic character of Modesty Blaise in 1963 as the heroine of an action adventure comic strip. He didn’t do the art work for the strip (that was done by four successive artists altogether), but he was responsible for the storylines and printed matter during the whole 38-year run, continuing until 2001. (These original strips are currently being reprinted as a series of graphic novels.) It quickly proved popular enough that 20th-Century Fox enlisted him to write a screenplay for a spin-off movie, which he did. However, he approached the character and the project seriously; and the filmmakers decided that they wanted to produce a parody of the James Bond films instead.

So, they brought in another writer to rework his screenplay, and ended up only keeping one sentence of it. Surprisingly, though, they asked O’Donnell, not his replacement, to do the novelization. He did –but he used his screenplay as the basis. That became the book I’m reviewing here, which was published in 1965 and sparked a long-running series of novels and stories, all with original plots distinct from those of the comic strips. (Meanwhile, the movie, with its caricature of Modesty in the main role, hit the screens in 1966, but failed to spark any fan enthusiasm comparable to what the books and comics generated.)

O”Donnell’s Modesty is a fascinating, complex and layered character, with an unusual back-story that’s provided in its basics at the beginning of this book, but fleshed out more as the tale unfolds. Born about 1939 –she doesn’t know exactly when, nor what her real name and nationality is– she was orphaned as a small child in the chaos and atrocities of World War II, and wandered alone through the Balkans and Middle East, sometimes living in refugee or DP camps. Exposed to a lot of danger and brutality, she survived against all odds because she learned to defend herself and to develop a tough, pragmatic mentality. As a tween, she was mentored by another refugee, a former university professor (whom she protected, rather than the other way around) who taught her a great deal; intelligent and gifted with a good memory, she’s well-educated as a result.

Winding up in Tangier at 17, she soon succeeded to the leadership of a criminal gang, and built it into a substantial international organization, the Network, that engaged in art and jewel thefts, currency manipulations, smuggling, and intelligence brokering. She did NOT, however, engage in drug or sex trafficking (and sometimes provided the authorities with tips that enabled them to bust drug operations); her criminal activities violated the law, but never her own personal moral code and sense of honor. (It was during her Network days that she forged her abiding friendship with Willie Garvin, a skilled knife-fighter whose life had pretty much hit bottom until she saw his potential and recruited him; he would become her lieutenant and faithful sidekick.) Having amassed her goal of half a million pounds sterling by the time she was about 25, she turned the Network over to its regional bosses and she and Willie (also wealthy by that time) retired to a quiet life in England.

The book opens about a year later, when she’s bored and restive, increasingly aware that she’s psychologically geared to find fulfillment and purpose in high-risk physical action, and doesn’t feel really alive when she’s vegetating without it. At this point, she’s approached by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence (who did business with her, through Willie, when she was brokering items of information that interested the British government). As partial payment to a Middle Eastern sheik for an oil concession, Britain is shipping ten million pounds worth of diamonds from South Africa to Beirut –and there are rumors that the secrecy of the shipment has been compromised, and that someone may be out to steal it. Being aware of Modesty’s unique wide knowledge of, and contacts in, the international underworld, Tarrant would like her to check this out for him. First, though, she’ll have another priority on the agenda –rescuing Willie (also bored and restive) from the South American prison where he’s awaiting execution, having been a mercenary on the losing side in a civil war.

modesty2O’Donnell is a master of characterization; not just Modesty and Willie, but all of the secondary characters here too, are wonderfully wrought, full-orbed and realistic. The plotting is taut and well-paced, with no unnecessary filler, and there’s a real sense of danger and challenge. It’s clear that the author has a very good working knowledge of traditional Arab culture, which adds texture here. Unlike Ian Fleming, he doesn’t go in for far-fetched gadgetry, but he does endow his heroine and hero with some believable gadgets and an ability to secrete them on their person. He writes action scenes that are clear, vivid and gripping; and he sets his action in the context of a moral framework –recognizable good is pitted here against genuine evil, and O’Donnell makes us root wholeheartedly for the former and despise the latter. Modesty herself is no plaster saint; I didn’t approve of everything she’s done in her life, or every aspect of her lifestyle now. But I could understand her motivations, and didn’t have any trouble liking and respecting her as a heroine –she has a lot of very real virtues, is a born leader and as valiant a fighter as ever lived, cares about others and treats them decently, and respects innocent life (and will spare adversaries’ lives at times when some people in her shoes probably wouldn’t).

At one point, O’Donnell makes use of a double coincidence in his plotting, which some critics might fault him for. (But that personally didn’t bother me much; I ascribed it to the action of providence.) And while he drops the names of various firearms models to lend verisimilitude to his narrative, he makes a couple of bloopers in his treatment of guns. Also, he describes technical processes at places in the narrative in more detail than I would (I have a low tolerance for that kind of thing), but he usually has a good reason to, and does it with reasonable clarity; some fans will actually regard this as a strength of the writing. One major character displays some sexist attitudes, but I didn’t think O’Donnell was sharing in or justifying them, just realistically depicting the way many males in 1965 thought (and still do).

There’s a high body count here, but the violence is handled quickly and cleanly; while some of the villains are sadists, O”Donnell isn’t. There’s some bad language, and a certain amount of religious profanity, but no obscenity. While there’s no explicit sex, it’s made clear that unmarried sex took place a few times, and will again; Willie and Modesty are single, but not celibate. (Their relationship with each other, though, is perfectly chaste and Platonic –they genuinely do love each other, and would die for each other, but as true friends, not as erotic partners.)

In this book, it’s noted in passing that Modesty has been raped twice in her life. As it stands, that’s just a reflection of the tragic fact that women in our world often do face a lot of sexual violence; and she isn’t defined by the experience, and doesn’t have a victim mentality that allows it to permanently scar her life, which is positive modeling. But I’m told by other readers that in the other books of the series (though not the comics) Modesty tends to be raped quite frequently. To me, that’s a disturbing amount of sexual violence for one character to have to undergo; and it does seem like a morbid overuse of the motif. But that said, I’m still invested enough in this heroine and her future adventures to continue reading the series!

Author: Peter O’Donnell
Publisher: Souvenir Press, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, on its 10th anniversary



“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.”

Today marks the 10th anniversary for the release in the United States of Kill Bill, Volume 2, completing the saga of The Bride and her quest for vengeance over the man who stole her daugher, killed her husband at the altar and left her in a coma. In honour of this date, we watched the assembled compilation known as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. While this has never officially been released – despite regular claims by Quentin Tarantino that he was about to start work on it – the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles was allowed to show it in March and April 2011, its second public screening since the Cannes Film Festival of 2004 (there was one at the Alamo Drafthouse).

This helped lead to bootleg editions circulating through the usual sources online, where fans edited the previously-released versions together, to simulate Tarantino’s vision as closely as possible. Of course, these aren’t perfect, if QT’s claims of an extended anime sequence are to be believed. But I’m not inclined to wait around any longer – it’s entirely his own fault I still have not bought a copy of either film, even though they are certainly iconic in our genre. So, how does the combined version play? And a decade after the saga came to its bloody conclusion, does the story still hold up? [Note. This will be less a standard review than a series of feelings.  If you want a review, I refer you to the ones written at the time for Volume 1 and Volume 2.  I suppose I should also insert a spoiler warning for the rest of this piece. Though if anyone reading this hasn’t seen both films already, you pretty much deserve to be spoilered!]

killbill1In terms of content, there isn’t much alteration, with the only real change, a small but significant cut at the end of Volume 1. What’s removed, is Bill’s line, “Is she aware her daughter is still alive?” This means neither audience nor heroine know this, until she shows up at Bill’s house for the final confrontation. [I have to say, her daughter certainly doesn’t seem like a four-year old either.] Rather than substance, the biggest difference for me was stylistic: the overall balance seemed more even, as a single entity, than seen as two separate pieces months apart. Volume 2 seemed excessively talky on its own. While that’s still the case, it’s to a significantly lesser degree, being balanced directly by the first half, where The Bride engages in actions, not words. Indeed, the only person she kills in the second part is Bill, a sharp contrast to the pile of corpses left in her wake during its predecessor. His death still feels somewhat rushed, and it’s a shame the original ending – a swordfight between Bill and Beatrix, clad in her wedding dress, on the beach – couldn’t be filmed, because the production went over time.

My viewing of the film now is also altered, by having seen over the intervening decade, more of the movies which had influenced Quentin, in particular Lady Snowblood and Thriller: A Cruel Picture. I’ve not been a particular fan of this aspect of Tarantino’s work, since the whole City on Fire/Reservoir Dogs thing; I find it gets in the way of enjoying his films, if you’re frequently being reminded of other movies. This kind of homage still works better when it’s slid in more subtly, for example Vernita Green’s pseudonym for her new life being Jeanne Bell, likely a reference to the actress who was the star of the 70’s blaxploitation pic, T.N.T. Jackson. [And, of course, Green’s daughter is called Nikita…] I have to say, QT’s foot fetish seems a lot more blatant now than it did at the time. The most obvious case is when The Bride is trying to regain control of her toes in the back of the Pussy Wagon, but Sofie Fatale’s feet also come in for some attention. Again, perhaps subsequent knowledge plays into the viewing experience.

10 Favourite Lines from The Whole Bloody Affair

  • Vernita Green: Black Mamba. I shoulda been motherfuckin’ Black Mamba.
  • O-Ren Ishii: The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is… I collect your fucking head. Just like this fucker here. Now, if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, now’s the fucking time!
  • The Bride: Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.
  • The Bride: This is what you get for fucking around with Yakuzas! Go home to your mother!
  • The Bride: I want them all to know they’ll all soon be as dead as O-Ren.
  • Budd: That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.
  • Pai Mei: What if your enemy is three inches in front of you, what do you do then? Curl into a ball? Or do you put your fist through him?
  • Elle Driver: I killed your master. And now I’m gonna kill you too, with your own sword, no less, which in the very immediate future, will become my sword.
  • The Bride: Before that strip turned blue, I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train… for you. But once that strip turned blue, I could no longer do any of those things. Not anymore. Because I was going to be a mother.
  • Bill: You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favorite person, but every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.

killbill2What hasn’t changed is the sheer, unadulterated awesomeness of the fights, as jaw-droppingly brutal and intense as they were ten years ago. Yuen Wo-Ping certainly cements his position as the most inventive and effective martial arts choreographer in history. Though this version has the entire House of Blue Leaves fight in colour, the arterial spray becomes so obviously excessive, as to reduce its overall impact. Much love must also now go to someone barely known at the time, now carving out her own niche: stuntwoman and Thurman double: Zoë Bell. Bonus fun is now had, watching the battles and going, “Zoë… Zoë… Uma… Zoë… Uma… Zoë.” [That’s probably fairly close to the correct ratio!] The anime sequence depicting O-Ren Ishii’s early years is still fabulous and lush, revenge foreshadowing The Bride’s. You can see why, in 2006, Tarantino floated the idea of further films in a similar style, telling of Bill’s and Beatrix’s origins. Although, like all the other Kill Bill sequels he has floated over the years, Quentin’s mouth appears to be moving much faster than any actual production.

The combined version does probably run about 30 minutes too long, with Volume 2 in particular need of tightening up. It doesn’t so much reach a climax, as approach it as a limit. Bill’s burbling on about comic-book superheroes is one of those cases where Tarantino’s voice becomes louder than that of his characters (see the first half of Death Proof for a long, drawn-out example of this, perhaps the most self-indulgent dialogue in a filmography largely driven by self-indulgent dialogue). I also remain somewhat skeptical in regard to the deliberate misorder of Beatrix’s revenge. O-Ren Ishii is the first actually killed, according to The Bride’s list, yet we begin with her encountering Vernita Green. While that made some sense when the film was in two volumes, providing a spectacular encounter to end the first half, that’s less the case here. I’ve never found a satisfactory explanation for quite why Green wasn’t simply #1 on the list. But I guess, messing up the timeline is just what Tarantino does.

However, let’s cut to the chase – with the elegance of a pissed-off bride wielding a Hattori Hanzo sword. This remains one of the finest examples of action heroine cinema to come out of mainstream Hollywood, and arguably, hasn’t been matched in the ten years since. And it’s not purely for The Bride: O-Ren, Vernita, Elle and GoGo all deserve acknowledgement as memorable characters, any of whom could stand on their own. Even as someone who can generally take or leave most of Tarantino’s directorial work – I think he’s a better screenwriter – I can’t deny what he crafted here is an undeniable, four-hour classic of the genre.

“The lioness has rejoined her cub, and all is right in the jungle.”

Gallery: Volume 1

Gallery: Volume 2



“Run Sandra Run”

GRAVITY2013 was perhaps a landmark for women in action films. with the top slot at the American box-office going to Jennifer Lawrence in Catching Fire. But also present in the top five was this, which kicked Katniss’s arse for critical acclaim, snaring 10 Oscar nominations to Fire’s… Well, none at all, actually. That’s probably a little starker contrast than is accurate – they are respectively 97% and 90% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes – but it is interesting to compare the two films and their approach. In Gravity, the sex of the lead character simply isn’t very relevant: you could switch it to being a man, and you wouldn’t need to change much, not even the name – Ryan Stone. I’d be unsurprised if told that, like Salt, this was originally written for a male lead. Indeed, it also fails the infamous Bechdel Test of feminism, passing none of its three criteria – though this says more about Bechdel’s uselessness than Gravity, I feel (Run Lola Run also goes 0-for-3, and it’s not the last thing it has in common, as we’ll see).

But Gravity certainly deserves coverage here, every bit as much as Alien – another film where the gender of the hero is largely irrelevant.  Admittedly, in some ways, it’s the very antithesis of what we now associate with “action film”, most obviously with an average shot length claimed in a number of places to be about 45 seconds. I’m not sure the math on that quite works out, and it’s certainly boosted by its amazing opening shot, which runs well over 10 minutes. But in an era where the dreaded “MTV-style” of editing has hampered many a genre entry e.g. a number in the Resident Evil franchise, this is truly a breath of fresh air, with Cuarón happy to let things unfold in front of us, rather than jazz things up with frenetic and pointless cutting, that doesn’t generate tension and excitement less than confusion. Of course, that’s Cuarón’s style: his previous (and excellent) Children of Men had a couple of similarly spectacular long shots.

Stone (Bullock) is a mission specialist, whose debut flight into space is to carry out maintenance on the Hubble. She’s on a spacewalk with shuttle commander, Matt Kowalski (Clooney), when a devastating storm of debris strafes them, knocking out their comms with Earth and leaving Stone tumbling through space. Though Kowalski, with the aid of his jet-pack, brings her back, the shuttle is toast, and there’s no option but to head for the International Space Station, hoping it will provide a safe haven and means of returning to Earth, before both Stone’s air hits empty, and the debris completes another orbit and blasts them once more. However, before getting inside [SPOILER], they get hung up on deployed parachute cords from a module attached to the ISS, and Kowalski cuts himself loose, drifting off in to space. This saves Stone from immediate threat, but she’s now utterly alone and [END SPOILER] facing an escalating series of predicaments, requiring her to dig deep into her inner resources, both mental and physical.

gravity2More than once, I found myself holding my breath, as the heroine fought against the implacable foe of a brutal, unforgiving environment. That’s the first element this has in parallel with Lola, which also had no human adversary. There, it was time which was the enemy, and that’s an aspect here too, with every 90 minutes bringing a new barrage of destruction. But the main thing this has in common is the heroine’s initial dependence on a paternal figure (her true father in Lola) for rescue from their difficult situation. It’s only when that support is removed, and she is thrown back to surviving entirely on her own merits, that the film blossoms fully. For the first 30 minutes, this is little more than space opera heroics, with Clooney being Clooney and some eye-rolling clichés: Kowalski is on his last mission, and another member of the crew has a picture of his family taped to his spacesuit. Yeah, that’ll end well. Still, extremely nice visuals – stunning, to the point this is one of those rare films I will buy on BluRay – are enough to get us through to the last hour, which is basically woman vs. space, and is absolutely compelling.

B-movie critic Joe-Bob Briggs once declared, “The first rule of great drive-in movie-making: Anyone can die at any moment.” By this metric, Gravity is a great drive-in movie, because Ryan’s survival is, often literally, dangling by a slim thread. Whether she’s bouncing around like an interstellar crash-test dummy, running out of oxygen, or bailing out of a space-station on fire, the peril is right there, and it’s Stone finding ways to deal with it that help make her one of the best heroines in mainstream cinema of the past few years. Cuarón, mercifully, doesn’t give her a romantic interested, no boyfriend or even a child back on Earth as motivation for survival: she explicitly says at one point, “No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul.” And it doesn’t matter.  Indeed, that’s a big part of her transformative journey, going from someone who relies on others, uncertain of her own abilities, to being completely self-assured and single-minded. She wants nothing but to live – not for a man, or her offspring, just for herself.

Her final words are a simple, “Thank you”: it’s not clear to whom they’re addressed, since it has been made clear, Stone isn’t religious. Perhaps it’s gratitude for her rebirth: I suspect it’s no coincidence that there are scenes and shots here, which appear consciously to echo a caterpillar emerging from a cocoon, or a turtle struggling out of the egg. Bullock’s performance is beautifully understated, which is exactly as needed for the scenario – what’s the point in hysterics when there’s no-one around to see them? – and over the course of the film, she goes from a somewhat annoying, dependent second banana, to someone in whom you are fully invested. With her survival highly uncertain, right until the final frame (hey, cameo appearance by Arizona’s own Lake Powell!), I’m not certain how much repeat viewing this might have. It’s possible knowing the outcome may degrade the tension which is certainly one of the film’s strongest suits. However, even discounting that, there’s an awful lot here to like and appreciate, Cuarón has likely become one of those few directors whose name alone is enough to get me to watch, but everyone involved here deserves enormous praise for their work in crafting a memorable piece of cinema.

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Star: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney


Lady Sazen and the Drenched Shallow Sword


“Depth perception? It’s vastly over-rated…”

A sequel to One-Eyed One-Armed Swordswoman, this stands more than well enough on its own merits, with an interesting and complex storyline and engaging characters. As a young girl, Lady Sazen (Ohkusu) lost both an arm and her eye to the devilish Lord Daizen-dayu, who coveted the titular sword owned by her father. Sazen barely escaped with it and her life, and is now a wandering swordswoman, roaming the countryside. She saves a girl being chased by some thugs, and it turns out that she knows all the inside dirt on a corrupt priest, and he won’t stop until she has been silenced. Meanwhile, Daizen-dayu hasn’t given up on the sword, and has hired another samurai to get it from Sazen, bu any means necessary.

Dating from the end of the sixties, this is rather more restrained in terms of arterial spray than the genre would become in a few years, with Lone Wolf. But there’s still a brisk efficiency here, with Sazen needing no more than two strokes to finish off almost any opponent. It actually took me some time – well past her first fight – to realize she only was supposed to have one arm. I thought the whole “taking the scabbard off with her teeth” was a stylistic choice, not a necessity caused by a shortage of limbs; really, the term “disabled” was never less appropriate. Ohkusu is a very good heroine, smart and kind, yet absolutely ruthless when necessary.

However, it’s probably the plot that’s the strongest element in this, with the two main threads kept moving forward independently, until they finally cross over, for the final, blood-drenched reel. There’s twists and turns, with setbacks for both sides, and the political intrigue and corruption proves as tricky an opponent for Sazen as a pack of sword-wielding henchmen. Many of these films I’ve seen find it difficult to strike a balance between the dramatic and action elements, usually falling on one side or other. That isn’t the case here, and the result here comfortably kicks the arse of, say, either Lady Snowblood movie, and is among the best examples of period female chanbara I’ve seen.

Dir: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Star: Michiyo Ohkusu
a.k.a. Lefty Fencer



“First Form at Mallory Towers”

Soderbergh has never shied away from using unconventional cast members in his movies. Bubble was made entirely with non-professional actors, and when he wanted someone to play a high-class call-girl for The Girlfriend Experience, he went with renowned adult actress, Sasha Grey. Continuing this trend, Haywire revolves around MMA star Carano, which I guess means Soderbergh’s recent leading ladies could, in real life, kick your ass or lick your ass. Ok, I’ll stop. Here, Carano plays Mallory Kane – I keep wanting to type Mallory Knox – an employee of a shady private contracting firm with links to the government, who do the dirty jobs for which the feds want plausible deniability.

We first meet her in a diner, where Aaron (Tatum) meets her. It’s clear there’s some tension, with Aaron having been ordered to bring her in. After a brief, brutal brawl, she knocks him out and escapes, in a car belonging to startled patron Scott (Angarano). There she reveals what led up to that day: an operation in Barcelona, supposedly to rescue a hostage, followed by another in Dublin, which turned out to be an attempt to tidy up the loose ends from Barcelona, The plan is to frame Kane for multiple murders and portray her as a rogue operative. Kane needs to get to her boss, Kenneth (McGregor), and expose the truth before she’s gunned down.

It’s a deliberately-vague plot, with the characters speaking in clipped obscurisms, that leave the audience to piece things together. Don’t worry, it all becomes clear by the end, but it is probably fair to say that you have to pay a bit more attention than is usual for this kind of Hollywood thriller, between the fractured timeline and doubtful loyalties of most characters. It’s economical, at a tight 91 minutes (about 22 minutes shorter than the average Jason Bourne movie to date), and much like Carano, there’s not much fat on its bones: every scene serves a distinct purpose, which is definitely the way I like my movies.

I find it hard to criticize Carano’s acting, because it’s not clear how much acting is involved. Mallory Kane does not just possess physical prowess, but one who is also extremely comfortable with using it, and has a quiet confidence in her abilities. Any similarity to Carano is clearly not coincidental, and there isn’t much more required of her, in terms of emotion or depth. Unlike most action heroines there is no “personal” agenda e.g. Sarah Connor in T2, Ellen Ripley in Aliens, or The Bride in Kill Bill, it’s simply a case that her enemies are out to get her. In that aspect, Knox is not a particularly-“feminine” character. Just as Salt was originally envisaged as a male role, it’s easy to imagine someone like Jason Statham playing this part; hardly any plot changes would be needed.

And then there’s the ass-kicking, of various kinds. It’s good, Carano demonstrating a no-nonsense style that’s highly-effective. Perhaps too effective, in fact, since it seems that hardly any of the fights last longer than about 30 seconds – even the hotel bedroom one, which is certainly one of the roughest male/female brawls seen this side of Terminator 3, feels like it ends, just about when it should be getting going. While it’s nice to be left wanting more, rather than less, it’s still not quite the all-you-can-eat buffet of action I wanted. There also is no real sense of escalation; her final battle isn’t particularly different from the one which opens the film, in the diner; it has another location, and that’s about it, there’s no indication her adversary is any more of a challenge.

While the battles are well crafted – I note that the fight co-ordinator was J.J. Perry, who worked on Sunland Heat back in 2005 – perhaps my favorite scene was not actually one of them, but an extended scene where Mallory has to shake off her pursuers in Dublin. It is adequately extended, contains a number of twists and turns over its length, and showcases Carano’s physical prowess in more than just brutality, as she glides through and over buildings. I also enjoyed a snowy car-chase, which ends in a way which, I’m prepared to bet, you haven’t seen in a movie before. One senses Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs enjoyed playing with the usual expectations of the genre.

It’s certainly shot in typical Soderbergh style. He throws all manner of styles in there, from black-and-white through hand-held to the heavy use of colour filters. Mostly, these flourishes enhance the film, rather than distracting from it, and a billion nods of approval are due for avoiding the rapid-cut style of editing, which is the bane of modern action cinema (except for the rare cases where it’s done properly). Still, there’s no question it’s obvious who made it, to the point that I actually laughed when a shot of Kenneth appeared in sepia – having seen Traffic, I knew, before it was explained, that he had to be in Mexico.

All told, if not quite an all-time classic, this is more than acceptable, upper-tier work. Carano is by no means out of her depth, despite a heavyweight supporting cast including the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, and has an understated charisma which works in her favour. I don’t know if her future plans involving returning to the octagon, or sticking with the acting, but if it’s the latter, she’d certainly be a welcome addition to the (fairly short) roster of credible action-heroines from which Hollywood can draw.

Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Star: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Angarano

Sucker Punch


“Suckers for punishment?”

Before getting to the film, what’s perhaps even more interesting is the critical reaction: it has been a long time since I’ve seen a film provoke such savagery, e.g. the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who wrote: “The film abdicates so many basic responsibilities of coherent storytelling, even coherent stupid-action-movie storytelling, director/co-writer/co-producer Zack Snyder must have known in preproduction that his greasy collection of near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale wasn’t going to satisfy anyone but himself.” Ouch. That’s far from the only example, and covers the common planks used to whack Snyder: incoherence, faux-feminism and dubious sexual politics.

There’s not even any genre love lost. Joe Wright, director of the somewhat similarly-themed Hanna, which came out two weeks after Sucker, tore into it: “I probably shouldn’t say this but the posters for recent films with girls kicking arse – there’s one out at the moment – there’s girls in the poster in bikinis and crop-tops, and they’ve got pigtails and they’re dressed up as schoolgirls. They’re being sexualised, this is supposedly ‘Girl Power’ female empowerment and that’s bullshit. Female empowerment is not about sex, that is the point of female empowerment. It’s about brains and not objectifying women.”

It’s worth pointing out Wright hadn’t seen the film, but I can’t say I support his position of laying down canon law on what does or does not constitute “the point of female empowerment”, or accept that sex is incompatible with it, as he states. There’s multiple routes to the goal, just as the Camille Paglia approach to feminism differs from the Andrea Dworkin one. It’s not a Spandex leotard – one size fits all – and to denigrate another piece of entertainment (which is, after all, what both Hanna and Sucker Punch are) for an alternative approach seems petty and mean-spirited. There’s room in the playground for both. Of course, I’m not someone who relies upon Hollywood to provide any kind of moral compass: if you do, I’d say you have far bigger problems than Sucker Punch.

But those who like it, really like it. It’s rated at 6.6 on the IMDB, from over 25,000 votes, so it’s not just studio shills. Compare other critically-savaged and commercial genre “failures”: Barb Wire (3.1), Catwoman (3.2), Ultraviolet (4.0). Sucker is more in line with something like Underworld (6.8), and the reaction on Twitter is also far more positive. Star Cornish may have a point when she said, “It’s so stylised, so specific; there’s no other film like it at all. When you have something totally new, it’s going to be judged to the 10th degree… When you’ve got a totally new concept, it’s a love or hate relationship.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if it fails, I’d rather have a film with ambitions, that tries something different, rather than another Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen “comedy”. There’s some parallel to be drawn between Snyder and Dutch maverick Paul Verhoeven. You could link Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake to Robocop, while 300 and Starship Troopers are both pseudo-fascistic tributes to the glory of war – and Sucker Punch would be Snyder’s Showgirls, a critically-reviled flop, damaged by its rating. Except here, it’s the PG-13 which hurts, but we’ll get more into that a little later.

The movie itself is imperfect; by some measures perhaps not even the “best” GWG film I’ve seen at the cinema this month. However, it is thoroughly cinematic and can only be admired as such – I’m far more likely to pick up the Blu-Ray DVD of this than Hanna. An un-named 20-year old (Browning) is sent to a lunatic asylum by her stepfather, after rejecting his attentions and being made the scapegoat for the death of her younger sister; her lobotomy is scheduled for five days time. Turns out the asylum is a high-end brothel where our heroine – nick-named “Baby Doll” – and the other girls are kept to perform for the pleasure of various high-rollers. Baby Doll plots an escape, the tools necessary lifted by her accomplices while she entrances the staff and customers with her dancing. During these, Baby Doll retreats even further, to fantasy worlds to do battle against dragons, robots, samurai warriors, etc. But which “reality” is real?

There’s more doubt over that, than which reality Snyder likes: hands-down, it’s the one filled with carnage, and his love for it shows. It’s only April, you could nominate these as the best four action sequences of the year, and I wouldn’t argue. My personal favourite sees the five girls storm the trenches in World War I, taking on steampunk-powered German zombies, with the aid of a rocket-powered walking tank. Remarkably, as cool as that sounds on the page, seeing it on screen is even better. Yes, all bear more than a passing resemblance to video games: they still work, possessing an elegant flow to them. And while none of the heroines will make Zhang Ziyi lose sleep, nor are they left looking horribly out of their depth, a major fear on hearing a High School Musical star was involved.

Since Baby Doll is explicitly stated to be 20, this doesn’t strictly fall into the category of “teenage action heroines,” but her hair, clothes, make-up, etc. all are designed to evoke the spirit of what Chris disparagingly called, “schoolgirl porn” – but the PG-13 rating means it can get absolutely no closer, so really, what’s the point? At least Showgirls delivered the goods: Baby Doll’s fantasy world might as well have been an office, college dorm or, frankly, convent, instead of the world’s most demure brothel. Reports indicate it took seven submissions and the removal of 18 minutes to get past the MPAA, so I have to ask. Should a film that, on one level, is about an abused girl forced into prostitution by her step-father, share a rating with Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire?

However, I do like a little more plot and better characterization with my action sequences. I think Baby Doll probably sings more than she speaks in the film. Browning is responsible for the cover of Sweet Dreams, which backs the immensely creepy opening that paints, in swift efficient brush strokes, the lead-up to her arrival at the asylum. It’s almost as if Snyder says, “Well, that’s that out of the way,” and there’s nothing anywhere near as effective the rest of the way. The rest of Baby’s posse don’t even get the benefit of that, and remain little more than lingerie-clad chess pieces, to be moved around the board of Snyder’s (undeniably impressive) imagination. Same goes for the plot, which has the action sequences more grafted on, than flowing naturally from the plot.

Overall, however, for all its undeniable flaws, this is a rare beast: an action film where women [rather than a singular woman] take center-stage. I’m hard pushed to think of anything like it out of Hollywood since, perhaps, The Descent, and this is clearly on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, the luke-warm box-office probably makes it unlikely anyone else will follow suit, though I get the feeling it will do very nicely on DVD. It’s certainly close to a unique movie, for its content of style, content and execution, and I tend to think/hope that the passage of time will be kinder to it, than most contemporary critics.

Dir: Zack Snyder
Stars: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens

À l’interieur (Inside)


“Some women will stop at nothing to have a baby. Whether it’s theirs or not.”

The ‘final girl’ is a well-worn concept in horror: the last survivor, typically the “good” girl, finally fights back against the assailant in the movie’s climax. It is isn’t normally enough to merit inclusion here, since it’s usually a relatively minor aspect of the film. Here, however, not only is it just about the entire film, the main theme – motherhood and the instincts it arouses – is entirely feminine. Aliens, and Ripley’s surrogate parenting of Newt, would be another example. And it’s also a rarity in the horror genre for both protagonist and antagonist to be female, but the threat here certainly deserves to be up there with Freddy, Michael, Jason and their cousins.

The action here does take place on a much smaller-scale, with the vast majority occurring in a semi-remote house. Sarah (Paradis – her older sister is Johnny Depp’s other half) is left alone on Christmas Eve, her husband having been killed a few months previously in a car accident. She’s about to give birth, but is more depressed by her current situation than delighted. There’s a knock on the door from a mysterious woman (Dalle); Sarah, suspicious, does not let her in, but it seems the woman knows Sarah and her history. The police are called but find no trace and leave. Later that night, the woman returns, and it’s soon clear she will go to – bold, underline please – any lengths to take Sarah’s baby.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is hardcore horror of the most unrelenting sort, completely unsuitable for those of a nervous disposition, and particularly pregnant women. In the 1980’s, Dalle was a sexpot, for her role in Betty Blue, but you can flush all memory of that down the toilet: here, she has a feral, near-demonic intensity, and god help anyone who is unfortunate enough to get in her way. Particularly the men, who are disposed of with complete dispassion and brutality; as the film goes on, her relationship with Sarah becomes complex, and more a case of, “I’m taking your baby, and we can do this the hard way or… Well, really, that’s all there is. Sorry.” Friends, family, even an entire patrol of cops – no-one can help Sarah. She’s completely on her own, and her fate is entirely in her own hands.

Somewhat inspired by the 2006 case of Tiffany Hall, who removed a foetus from her friend’s womb with scissors, the film escalates from a quiet opening, through tension, before exploding in a literal tidal-wave of gore, as the protagonist and antagonist battle each other. My sole complaint is a couple of incidents in the final act that seem to stretch belief, e.g. a character conveniently rising from the dead for another assault, though it’s a common complaint in this area. Otherwise, even though we are jaded fans of both genres covered here, this one will stick with us for a long time, and cements France’s place at the forefront of horror.

Dir: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Star: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle

Double Dare


“Zoë Bell, you’re our heroine. Never change. “

The day after watching this documentary, I was clearing out the shed in preparation for our house move. I twisted my back, and thought about giving up, but soldiered on until the job was done – because that’s what Zoë Bell would do. It’s now my life philosophy: WWZD? She’s the main focus here, from working as Lucy Lawless’s double on Xena in New Zealand, through an unsuccessful attempt to break in to Hollywood, and on to a second try, where she’s hired to stand-in for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Paralleling this, it looks at Jeannie Epper, a veteran stuntwoman who shadowed Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. Now nearing her 60th birthday, Epper is still active and seeking work, fighting against the problems of being a female in an extremely male-dominated industry.

The thing that comes over is how delightfully un-Hollywood Bell is, innocent almost to the point of naivety – she’s blissfully unaware of the need, for example, to have head shots, and drops F-bombs with a marvellously casual air. The cameras are rolling when she gets the call telling her she’s got the Kill Bill job, and her obvious, genuine delight at the news, brought a huge grin to our faces, and is completely endearing. It’s to be hoped that Hollywood doesn’t change her in the slightest, and Zoë remains the same, down-to-earth, well-grounded person shown here, who is now even more solidly entrenched among our favourite contemporary action heroines.

I have some concerns there, based on Epper; her contemplation of plastic surgery and liposuction at her age is more sad than anything else, as is watching Jeannie working the phones, basically begging for work, even though she’s a legend in the business. There’s a good heart beating in there (Epper donated a kidney to a friend, for instance), but she has clearly been ground down by her decades in the film industry, and become a lot more cynical and battle-weary as a result. That’s no wonder, when you witness her struggles trying to get equal treatment for women at the annual awards ceremony. It’s a somewhat grim reality-check, warning of the potential perils ahead for Bell in her career.

But aside from the contrast in the two heroines, this is a fascinating study in a side of the business that doesn’t get anything like the recognition it deserves. As one comment I read elsewhere said, “If you liked Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Zoë Bell is the reason why,” and that sums up the shadows in which stuntwomen work. This film shines a light into that darkness, and both Epper and Bell deserve enormous respect and admiration for putting their bodies on the line, in the name of our entertainment. And while I’m not really a big Tarantino fan, if he turns out to be responsible for bringing Bell to a wider audience, then it’s perhaps the biggest gift his career will have given us.

Dir: Amanda Micheli
Star: Jeannie Epper, Zoë Bell