Operações Especiais

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“Brazilian whacks.”

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Chaos, by Poul Anderson

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

operationchaosPoul Anderson (d. 2001) was one of the leading lights of speculative fiction in the latter half of the 20th century. He’s perhaps best known for his science fiction; but this excellent novel is a sample of his fantasy.

We’re in an alternate mid-20th-century U.S. here, in a world where magic, though dormant since the Bronze Age, somehow reasserted itself around the turn of the 20th century, and became the major force (rather than technology –although here technology adapts to and works with it) that revolutionized modern society, industry and daily life. (For instance, rather than using cars, people travel by broomstick or magic carpet.) The magical system is normally incantational, manipulating impersonal and morally neutral paranatural forces in the world (but the villains may also invoke demonic powers). It’s also a world where science has demonstrated and accepted the reality of Deity, the afterlife, atonement, moral law, and the angelic and the demonic, without establishing (or denying) the truth of any particular theistic creed. That represents our hero/heroine’s take on the spiritual (and apparently Anderson’s as well) –and it’s a theme taken seriously here.

Steve and Ginny, the aforementioned H/h, are, respectively, a werewolf (Anderson’s werewolves, like Anthony Boucher’s, are simply people who can shapeshift into wolves –that doesn’t make them vicious or madly homicidal) and a white witch. When we first meet them, they’re Army officers serving in World War II –but in this reality, the Allies’ main adversary is a restored, brutal Islamic Caliphate (considered heretical by some other Muslims) that’s out to conquer the world and impose its version of theocracy. (This book was published in 1971; it’s interesting to see how subsequent history has developed in the Middle East, with ISIS, etc.) And of course this is a war in which magic is the principal weapon employed by both sides. At the book’s outset, our co-protagonists are tasked with a probably suicidal mission that’s vital to the war effort, and from there the action and the jeopardies continue thick and fast. But their real battle is much bigger than the war, and the real Adversary isn’t the Caliphate. Who is he? Well… he’s our Adversary, too.

Steve serves as our narrator; Anderson uses the conceit that he’s in a trance state, communicating across the ether between alternate realities to share the benefit of his experiences with any receptive inhabitants, who share a common cosmic struggle and destiny. IMO, that device works well. The author’s prose style is conversational, but erudite, with a rich substratum of dry, dead-pan humor in the way things are phrased and the matter-of-fact acceptance of how magic permeates daily life. But this is also a serious book, with lethal violence and life-and-death (or worse) danger, defining moral choices, real psychological depth in places, and underlying spiritual and social messages that are as serious as a heart attack. Anderson’s solid knowledge of worldwide mythology and occult lore enriches the tale, as does his accurate understanding of Gnosticism and its significance. Steve and Ginny are characters readers can readily like, admire and root for. Bad language here is limited to an occasional h- or d-word, and there’s no inappropriate sexual content.

Ginny is a strong, capable woman with a cool head in a crisis, iron nerves and will, quick reflexes and an ability to handle physical challenges thrown at her by demons and elementals. She acquits herself well in combat situations; though she’s mostly up against non-human foes. During the war, though, she proved herself a lethal fighter against enemy soldiers as well (although we don’t actually get to see her most deadly exploit directly –Steve just finds the bodies after the fact!).

All in all, I found this a great read, from a master writer at the top of his game. My wife greatly liked the book, too, as well as another of the author’s novels we’ve read together years ago, The High Crusade. The main female character there, Lady Catherine, isn’t really an action heroine as such for most of the book –but when the chips are down, she can come through, and that book can also appeal to fans of strong heroines.

Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: Depends on how you define it…

onbaskiliskThis series opener is one that was been on my radar for a long time, so I was delighted to finally read it last year! Although I’m a science fiction fan, I’m not generally attracted to military SF, which of course this is. But that’s mostly because my impression is that much of that sub-genre concentrates heavily on futuristic military hardware, to the neglect of the human element (and I think the human element is what good literature is all about). But that’s not a problem here. To be sure, there’s futuristic military hardware, and techno-babble (see below). But the human element, and a rousing tale of human adventure, is the core of the book.

Ever since junior high school, I’ve appreciated historical fiction about the British Navy in the age of sail; I like the ambiance, the ethos, and the action of the storylines. Weber’s a kindred spirit in this respect, and particularly a fan of C. S. Forester (to whom he dedicates this novel). The latter’s Horatio Hornblower series provides the inspiration for Weber’s series, and the identity of the initials of the respective protagonists is no coincidence. This has led some Hornblower fans to cry “Foul!” and “Rip-off!” I’m not joining in those cries, however. Yes, Weber has definitely brought something of the flavor of the earlier novels, set in the life of an ocean-going navy in the Napoleonic Wars, to this tale of a space-faring navy in the far future. Honor’s Manticore is a kingdom with an aristocracy and a political system reminiscent of Regency England (the author actually provides a plausible historical explanation for this!), while its rival, Haven, has affinities to revolutionary France. And Honor has heroic qualities in common with Hornblower, as well as her initials. But that’s where the parallels end. She’s her own person, not a Hornblower clone, and I did not see the plot as duplicating anything from the earlier series; it’s original. (Granted, I’ve only read one Hornblower novel.) What we have here, IMO, is an SF homage to Forester’s canon, not a plagiarized rip-off.

Of course, it’s an updated homage, most noticeably in that the all-male world of Hornblower’s navy has finally met the world of women’s liberation. Not only do we have a female protagonist; women in Manticore (which currently happens to have a ruling Queen) enjoy full role equality with men, can occupy positions of power, and serve in the space navy on an equal footing with males. Being an (equalitarian) feminist myself, that’s music to my ears! Moreover, I’m a long-standing admirer of strong, take-charge, combat-capable heroines, and that definitely describes Honor. She’s got the smarts, guts, determination and decisiveness to captain a warship; but more than that, she’s a person of integrity, ethics, loyalty, and moral courage. (Honor isn’t just her name; it’s a quality that defines her.) No, she’s not perfect (she’s got a temper, that she sometimes has to fight to control!); but she’s a woman you can respect and admire. Her “kick-butt quotient” above is ambiguous only because she doesn’t engage in direct or one-on-one combat here (although she’s a strong, solidly-built woman, and back in her naval academy days once defended herself against a would-be rapist, thrashing him soundly). But she does command a starship, with cool-headed resolution and skill, in lethal ship-to-ship combat.

Weber’s supporting cast is life-like as well. His plotting is good, carefully developed and well-paced, with real suspense that rises to nail-biting intensity at the climax. Likewise, his world-building is capable and vivid. Spot-on political commentary with real contemporary relevance is embedded naturally in the storyline; and in the tradition of heroic action adventure, the moral message here is one that’s supportive of virtue, duty, patriotism, and loyalty.

That’s not to say it’s an unflawed debut. As other reviewers have noted, Weber’s partial to the info-dump technique. There are a couple of long ones here. The first one explains Manticore’s political system, and at least has the merit of being interesting in its own right. The second attempts to explain the mechanics of FTL space travel and hyper-space currents, as they work in the author’s imaginary view of the galaxy, in such a way as to provide a veneer of hard science. How valid any of this is (even by the standards of modern quantum theory, which I don’t understand or necessarily even fully accept!) I don’t know, and don’t care; and the excursion through it left me slightly glassy-eyed. I don’t have to have a solid basis in known science for my SF, so I’d have been happy with much less explanation –just a basic indication of what the spaceships can or can’t do. (If he wanted to include all this techno-babble, IMO, Weber would have been better off to put it in an appendix, as he does with his extensive discussion of Manticorean chronology –though my copy is missing a page of this. I didn’t miss it!)

There’s also a significant amount of profanity and obscenity here (though not from Honor); mostly from villains or military types under severe stress. (Readers who dislike extremely grisly violence should be warned that they’ll find some of that here, too!) But despite these factors, this was easily a four-and-a-half star read for me!

Author: David Weber
Publisher: Baen Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book. But the first two volumes, this and Honor of the Queen, are actually for free from the publisher, in electronic formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Our Girl

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“GI Molly”

ourgirlMolly Dawes (Turner) has just turned 18, works in a nail-salon, lives on a council estate with her five siblings, pregnant mom and unemployable father, and has a Muslim boyfriend who is cheating on her. Oh, she looks kinda like a chav version of Daenerys Targaryen too, but given her unsurprising lack of dragons, has no apparent future. Throwing up at the end of a night out with her gal pals, she finds herself in front of an Army recruitment office, and decides it offers a potential way out from her dead-end life. Naturally, it’s not quite as easy as that, since her boyfriend is unimpressed, and her parents think the big announcement is that she’s pregnant. But she persists, and the film follows her journey through basic training, as the mouthy peroxide blonde turns into a combat medical technician.

Yes, it’s a fair criticism that this is heavily pro-Army, occasionally feeling like a recruitment video more than a movie. But it doesn’t soft-pedal the dangers at all. Indeed, a constant thread in the second half is Molly’s reluctance to write the “letter from the grave” required for all recruits, to be sent home in the event of their death, and perhaps the film’s most poignant moment has a ceremony at a war memorial, with a veteran reading John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. But the film’s biggest strength is undeniably Turner, an escapee from long-running British soap EastEnders. She captures perfectly the multi-faceted character of Molly, who wants more out of life, but has no apparent way to get it. In that aspect, this reminded me somewhat of Dangerous Lady, and I could see the heroine here ending up slipping into crime to escape her situation – and doing just as well. But Molly lacks self-confidence – describing herself as stupid even when that clearly isn’t the case – and that, along with the opportunity, is what the military provides.

There’s an interesting subplot where Molly talks about basic training with another recruit, who compares the Army to a cult, designed to break an individual down so they can build you back up the way they want. He means it disparagingly – and later is tossed out, as “unfit for Army service”, apparently not having fooled anyone. But the film seems to be making the case that this is not necessarily a bad thing, because the end product, particularly in this case, appears to be a much more productive member of society than the one who enlisted in the cult. Even if it’s also someone who is now estranged from her pals, her boyfriend  and some of her family as a result. Thought-provoking and engaging, this was turned into a five-part series, that I think I may now have to track down.

Dir: David Drury
Star: Lacey Turner, Flossy Grounds, Daniel Black

Operation Angelica, by Juliene Lloyd

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

operation angelicaFull disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author’s offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. Author Lloyd dedicates this debut novel, appropriately, “to all the invisible heroes in the world who risk their own lives to save others.”

It’s the opener for a projected series, the Vormund/Ames Files, dealing with a secretive consulting firm that caters to governments and businesses with needs in the security and counter-terrorism area. What they provide is usually advice and analysis –but there are times when they go beyond that. While they’re not amoral mercenaries simply out for a buck –they choose to be on the side of good, not evil– they may operate on the edge of the law, and in operations where their employers sometimes might want some “plausible deniability.” The author’s own comment (in a personal message to this reviewer) sums her work up best: “There are serious themes, but framed in terms of good, evil, and hope. I consider my characters to be imperfect people trying their best in an imperfect world.”

Though published this year, the book is set in 2008. A few months before it opens, a small party of innocent and idealistic American botanists ventured into the jungles of Honduras, researching medicinal plants. Unfortunately, they blundered into the territory used by drug lord Hector Vega, and while trying to flee from a fire fight between his minions and a rival gang, they were all brutally gunned down. Both the U.S. and Honduran governments know, from eyewitness testimony, that Vega was responsible; but his political connections and back-scratching arrangements give him blank-check immunity. He’s not as home free as he imagines, however, because the grief-stricken fiancee of one of the murdered men is a soft-spoken young woman from Georgia named Elizabeth Ashton. Liz is a decent, ethically-oriented person who cares about others and about doing the right thing. She’s also a professional sniper for the FBI, with the rank of Special Agent, and probably as deadly a markswoman with a rifle as it’s humanly possible to be.

The plot here has two focal points of action (and this doesn’t disclose anything that’s not already outlined in the cover copy): the Vega problem in the early chapters, and the main plot strand, code-named “Operation Angelica.” Law enforcement runs in Liz’s family (her father is a county sheriff, and her brother a state trooper); respect for legal due process and commitment to basic justice are both important principles for her. When they’re in irreconcilable conflict, and she has to decide which one trumps the other, she doesn’t take it lightly. Personally, I don’t have any problem with her decision (I’m much less hard on her on that score than she is on herself!). But it’s one that, eventually, brings her to the notice of the Vormund/Ames management –who are impressed rather than scandalized. That leads to a job offer (and given the series title, it’s no surprise that she accepts!).

The company’s current big project in hand is a rescue mission for a group of hostages –especially a critically ill journalist with both Columbian and French citizenship– held by a drug-trafficking Marxist guerrilla rebel group in the South American jungle. We also have a sub-plot involving a high-ranking CIA official with a gambling-debts problem and a lot fewer ethical scruples than he needs to have.

Lloyd’s prose style is accomplished and assured, which is to say that she handles diction, syntax, and vocabulary very well (a refreshing experience nowadays!). In 253 pages, I only found four typos, which indicates pretty good proofreading. She also appears to have genuine technical knowledge of firearms (although modern pistols don’t have to be “cocked,” as one is here; but many writers make that minor mistake) and of the training, procedures and equipment involved in SWAT-style ops; I don’t have personal experience in that area, but the writing has a solidly realistic feel to me. Not only Liz, but all of the major characters here are clearly delineated and lifelike.

Character and relationship development occupies more of the book than action, as does planning, intelligence gathering and set-up –that’s also realistic for this type of thing, where the time involved in actual gun-blazing action, if you’ve planned well, is actually relatively brief. That said, there’s a good deal of taut tension that mounts steadily before the shooting starts, and there’s a high body count when it’s finished. (Also, GWG fans will appreciate the fact that this novel gives us at least two major female characters who can handle a gun capably, not just one; CIA agent Katherine Williams is certainly one formidable lady!)

For the most part, the plotting here is linear and straightforward, without a lot of convolution, and this is a quick read. I withheld the fifth star in my rating because of several logical missteps in the CIA-official subplot; but that didn’t stop me from really liking the book, and I definitely intend to follow the series!

Note: Liz and other characters use a certain amount of bad language, of the d/h/s/a-word sort, at times, but no obscenity or religious profanity. Their speaking style is well within the bounds of realism for these types of characters and situations. One of the flashbacks has Liz recalling a conversation she and her fiance had when they were lying together in bed, and it’s clear that another couple make love at one point; but there’s no explicit sex, and Lloyd doesn’t portray any of these four people as promiscuous types.

Author: Juliene Lloyd
Publisher: Dark Sword Press. Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

[A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads]

The Opponent

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“Lacking in punch.”

the opponentPatty (Eleniak) is in an abusive relationship, but finds an outlet through an unconventional source – boxing. This comes through her friend June (Ellis), who works occasionally as a ring-girl for a promoter (Doman). One of his fighters is Tommy (Colby), a part-time boxer whose main source of income is as a limo driver, but also helps run a gym in the upstate New York city of Troy, which helps keep the local kids out of trouble. Reluctantly, he agrees to train Patty, who develops, not only physical strength as a result, but the self-confidence to handle her situation.

If only she used it. This is the kind of story which feels like it could have been a Lifetime or Hallmark TV movie, but the makers appear to be opting for something slightly grittier, though it rarely gets far away from tired clichés, You just know that Patty and Tommy are eventually going to fall into bed with each other; the pacing here might have been better had they done so sooner, rather than later, as this does then add a different dynamic to their relationship. The other problem is that Eleniak, despite dirtying-up for the role, is rarely even remotely convincing as a boxer: there’s a difference between “fit” and “fit for battle.” This is never clearer than when facing her nemesis, Red Lennox – she’s played by Andrea Nelson, a real boxer, who went 7-0 in 2000, the year this was made, and the difference in physique is painfully obvious. One person is playing a role; the other is living a life, and the obvious gap makes it hard to suspend disbelief.

I actually quite liked the performances: Doman has something of the late James Gandolfini about him, Colby is engaging and, perhaps surprisingly, Eleniak holds her own. [I was going to say I’d only ever seen her in Baywatch, but I then remembered her role in another GWG flick, Lady Jayne Killer] However, the decent sense of character development comes largely at the expense of a narrative that meanders aimlessly in circles, before petering out in an ending that might have been deliberately created to provoke a reaction of “Huh,” given the lack of closure to any of the major threads woven into the storyline. As a character study, this is fine; however, the lack of dramatic energy saps the interest and leaves it looking rocky, rather than Rocky.

Dir: Eugene Jarecki
Star: Erika Eleniak, James Colby, Aunjanue Ellis, John Doman

Onechanbara: Vortex

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“…and now, everything bad about a movie based on a video game.”

If the original film was a pleasant surprise, being shallow entertainment and mayhem of the most fluffy kind, the sequel is a real disappointment. It doesn’t help that it behaves entirely as if the first movie hadn’t happen at all. Different director, different cast, and the story here fails to acknowledge anything that happened previously, dead people being resurrected with no explanation. Not that some of this makes all that much difference – one Japanese actress swinging a sword in a fur-trimmed bikini and cowboy-hat, is much the same as another. But the story is laid out here with a horrific lack of clarity that makes it perhaps the most confusing zombie film of all time. Yeah: it takes a special kind of talent to screw up “Dead come back, hungry, so we have to kill them.” Instead of focusing on essentials, the movie lobs in a bunch of tedious guff about Himiko, a new threat, who is seeking to use the blood of Aya and her sister to… mumble something mumble. If they ever explained it clearly, by that stage, I’d lost interest.

However, far and away the film’s biggest single mis-step is the director’s total obsession with splashing digital blood on the lens. Once or twice, it can be cute, in a ‘breaking the fourth wall’ kinda way. But here, every slice leads to you having to peer through a red fog for a bit. It gets old after about five minutes, and after 10, you’re wishing desperately for a pair of digital windscreen-wipers. Rarely has a visual trick been so badly mis-applied, through monstrous over-use. The only thing keeping the movie going is the basic concept, but the film proves that, yes, even with a film about a bikini-clad zombie-slayer, it is possible to go badly wrong. Chris may have snorted during the original, but only once: for the pseudo-sequel, it felt like the living-room had been invaded by a herd of buffalo, and I am largely with the derision being expressed. If they ever make a third, I’m only interested if the original director, etc. come back.

Dir: Tsuyoshi Shoji
Star: Chika Arakawa, Kumi Imura, Rika Kawamura, Akari Ozawa

Onechanbara: Zombie Bikini Squad

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“Because nothing says post-apocalyptic zombie killer like a maribou-trimmed bikini and a cowboy hat.”

The Japanese title Onechanbara [variously Oneechanbara], is a portmanteau word, combining “onee-chan”, which means “big sister”, and “chanbara”, the term for sword-fighting movies. But, since this aspect would be lost on a Western audience, who can blame US distributors Tokyo Shock for adding the helpful subtitle, “Zombie Bikini Squad”. Y’know, in case the sleeve left doubts in this area. It’s based on a very popular series of Japanese video games, which consists of the heroines, in a variety of costumes, slicing and dicing their way through an apparently endless line of the living dead. With admirable faithfulness to the source material, the movie also consists of the heroines, in a variety of costumes, slicing and dicing their way through an apparently endless line of the living dead.

There’s Aya (Otugoro), the stoic sword-wielding one seen on the poster, and Reiko (Hashimoto), the leather-clad one with the infinite-ammo shotgun. Along with fat sidekick Katsuji (Waki), they’re looking for Aya’s sister, Saki – and also Dr. Sugita (Suwa), the mad scientist responsible for the zombie outbreak which has swept the world, setting sister nibbling on brother, daughter on mother, etc. On the way to their goal, they meet other survivors, a zombie version of GoGo Yubari from Kill Bill, and several million gallons of digital blood, including a good chunk sprayed onto the camera lens. Now, I’ve never played the game at all, so can only assume everything makes perfect sense in that universe. Still, as adaptations go, this seems to capture the inherent spirit of mindless slaughter admirably, with Aya’s power-up the most devastating video-game weapon since the Defender smart bomb. I just dated myself horribly, didn’t I?

Anyway. Is it any good? Not by objective standards, no. But it is a hell of a lot of fun, soundly kicking the ass of the last two Resident Evil movies there. While the characterization is, of necessity, composed of broad strokes, that’s forgivable, and it touches all the necessary zombie bases e.g. a character who gets nibbled and has to be put down as a result. An escalating series of encounters helps provide copious action, and despite the clear CGI, this is well-staged and edited, with the actresses doing a more than credible job. Besides, Chris’s snort of disbelief when Aya threw off her cloak to reveal the fur-trimmed bikini was priceless.

Dir: Yohei Fukuda
Star: Eri Otoguro, Tomohiro Waki, Taro Suwa, Manami Hashimoto

Operation Pussycat

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“Superfluous if harmless remake, smaller in every way than Russ Meyer’s original.”

Faster, Pussycat is one of the icons of the action heroine genre, literally entire decades ahead of its time. This Japanese version uses a lot of the same elements, starting with a trio of go-go girls on the lam, under their macho leader. They stumble across a wheelchair-bound man and his muscular if taciturn companion, who appears to be stashing a large sum of money somewhere on the premises. If only they could find it… There’s also an innocent who gets entangled in the web of deceit and counter-deceit – in the original, it was because she witnessed them kill her boyfriend, while in this case, it’s after she apparently witnesses the three beat up a policeman, who stopped them for speeding, and discovered the dead body stashed in the back of their pick-up truck.

The main problem is likely anyone trying to step into the shoes – make that, boots – of Tura Satana. It’s probably a lost cause for anyone, trying to capture the complete commitment of Satana, who took the role by the scruff of the neck and shook it, like a Rottweiler mauling a rag-doll. It’s this which was largely responsible for lifting the original to its heady, dizzying heights. Much as Mizutani gives her all, in the parallel role of “Harry”, she’s inevitably going to come up short, and the film never reaches the same heights as a result. The dialog in the original was another highlight, cheesily fragrant like the ripest cheddar, and while it may be the translation at fault, none of the lines here stick in the mind the same way.

That said, while a pale imitation, this is still fun enough on its own terms, and was clearly made with a lot of love for the original, which I can only respect. At a mere 43 minutes, it gallops along at a brisk pace, and the areas where it diverts most sharply from Faster – particularly the end – were interesting and offered scope for future development. All told, while there’s really no point to this, that isn’t enough to condemn it, and if treated as a homage to Meyer, it’s a pleasant, if brief, diversion.

Dir: Ryuichi Honda
Star: Kei Mizutani, Nao Eguchi, Yukari Fukawa, Eguchi Nao

Offside

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“Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.”

Being an action heroine is a rebellious, possibly revolutionary, act against society: what counts, depends entirely on how your society views women. Going to a soccer game, for example, would not qualify you in the Western world – but as in Ancient Greece, sporting events in Iran are strictly male-only, and a woman who attends one and gets caught, will find herself handed over to the Vice Squad. It redefines requirements somewhat, to say the least. The film tells the story of a number of women, who dress as men to sneak into a crucial 2005 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain, only to find their disguises imperfect. They’re held in an area, just out of sight of the game, by a group of soldiers, who really have better things to do themselves.

There’s a beautiful documentary feel; Panahi fooled the authorities into letting him film at the stadium, during the game depicted, by submitting a fake synopsis to authorities (this might have partly led to them refusing permission for the movie to be shown in Iran) and let the outcome determine the end of his film, which may partly explain the somewhat lacklustre ending, feeling in need of a more definitive conclusion. Filmed with non-professional actors, we don’t even know the names of the women, but quick, expert strokes, still give them character, from the tomboy to the wallflower to the one who plays football herself; their only connection is a love of the game and their country, which has led them to break the law. Yet the film is also sympathetic to the provincial soldiers, who would rather be watching the game themselves, and despite the radically-different society, the humanity of everyone involved is Panahi’s main concern.

Particularly outstanding is Irani’s tomboy, who becomes the de facto leader of the group, and continually hassles the guards. The film has a surprising amount of straight-faced humour, such as her riposte when asked if she’s a boy or a girl: “Which do you prefer?” Or one girl’s response when told they can’t go in because the men will be cursing: “We promise not to listen.” Similarly, when another needs to use the bathroom, this poses problems, since naturally there are no women’s facilities. The solution involves the impromptu conversion of a poster into a mask, though this hardly resolves things. Obviously, it’s not a traditional genre piece, and it’s this inaction which stops it from getting a seal. It is, however a fine piece of cinema, regardless of whether you appreciate football or not.

As for why it’s here, the director describes the women as having “entered a forbidden space before the law has given them permission to do so. They don’t have that permission yet, but they’ve gone ahead and entered the territory anyway. They’ve overturned the rules.” That’s what lifts this film into inclusion on this site: it’s about women, refusing to conform to subservient roles enforced on them, and whose behaviour confounds such expectations. Earlier in 2005, seven people were killed in an accident at the same stadium, after a game against Japan: the newspapers only published six photos, and it’s rumoured the seventh was a woman who had snuck in to the game. You can certainly argue, but in their own way, those depicted here are ‘action heroines’ every bit as much as Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley.

Dir: Jafar Panahi
Star: Shima Mobarak-Shahi, Safar Samandar, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi