Prophecy of Eve

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“Puts the ‘eve’ in dry heave.”

This will be a slightly shorter review than usual. For there’s not much to say about a film which runs only 77 minutes, yet still somehow managed to feels both confused and full of unnecessary padding. “Well done”, maybe? Certainly, as a model of what not to do, this hits all the necessary marks. It seems be set in Los Angeles, renamed Angel City, for no particularly good reason. There is a struggle between demons and those they possess – whose eyes flash red at dramatic or necessary to the plot moments – and those on the side of good, whose eyes flash green. Leading the latter side are the Order, and two of their members have, in defiance of the rules, have a child, Eve. Her parents are attacked and apparently killed by the demon-possessed, and Eve is left to fend for herself on the streets, while the Order try to locate her.

They are apparently a bit crap at the locating thing. For 15 years later (!), Eve (Villatuya) is still roaming the streets taking out bad guys with her sword. Meanwhile, demonic possessions have increased dramatically, and it appears to be connected to a certain company and its headquarters downtown. Fortunately, the Order have managed to infiltrate the place, and their operative, Esther (Maxali) has just escaped with footage showing exactly what the company are up to. Eve may be the only thing standing between the world and disaster. Or maybe not. Because the film may not even bother with anything approaching a coherent ending, opting instead to finish just when the film should be ramping up to an exciting climax.

Admittedly, any excitement would likely be a large improvement over what the movie provided to that point. Which would be a string of B-grade martial arts fights and C-grade performances. At first, I thought it was refreshingly ambitious of a Filipino production to attempt to make a movie set in Los Angeles, and quite brave of them to do so in English, when it clearly wasn’t the native tongue of the lead actors. Then, I realized my mistake: this is actually American. Oh, dear. I’m struggling to find many positives, but have to say, the look of the film is rather better than you’d expect from the reported $15,000 budget. It has a nicely drenched sheen of wet neon, that appears to have strayed in from a much bigger production. The poster, too, looks slick, and promises much: unfortunately, these positive aspects only stand in sharp contrast to what the film can actually deliver.

Dir: Ron Santiano
Star: Ia Villatuya, Michelle Laurent, Nicole Maxali, Roberto Divina

PMS Cop

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“A not-so fair cop”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl: The Assassin

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“Fake pearls.”

pearlI think perhaps the most memorable thing here was that, while doing my usual pre-review Googling, the search results returned with the warning that, “In response to multiple complaints we received under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed 35 results from this page.” I’m not sure whether I’m surprised or concerned that 35 sites apparently deemed this worth their while to rip and upload a bootleg copy of this, because it probably doesn’t deserve it. I may be particularly disgruntled due to the presence on the sleeve both of helicopters that don’t exist, and someone totally different from the heroine; half a star was docked from the grade for this. In reality, the star  (Patton, the director’s wife – he plays the florist she’s garotting in the picture, right!) looks more like Marilyn Manson, with a high forehead and close to no eyebrows.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – indeed, there’s something to be said for a heroine who challenges conventional notions of beauty, and Pearl does that, even if the distributor chooses to hide this behind a leggy, long-haired model type. She looks like a pissed-off killer, out for vengeance – not any longer on the people who killed her parents, for they were taken care of years ago, as others of that same type. Which would be criminals, drug-dealers, pimps, etc. She kidnaps meth scientist Erik (Morales), using his inside knowledge to work up the chain toward top boss Tre (Brown), while Detective Wyatt (Morafetis) follows the trail of bodies left behind Pearl, from the other end.

Even given my tolerance for independent, low-budget cinema, the action here was particularly poor, barely choreographed and possessing absolutely zero impact. Surprisingly, what worked better than expected were the characters, particularly Erik, who actually possesses something of an arc, going from a meth-head with few redeeming features into something of a tragic hero. By comparison, Pearl doesn’t move the needle very much: she starts off the film as a stone-faced killer, and more or less ends it as a stone-faced killer. You do get to see some of her backstory, but it seems more perfunctory, and it’s also simplistic in the extreme: someone killed her family, now everyone must pay. That might have worked for Charles Bronson forty years ago; now, audiences expect rather more nuance. Still, there was one genuinely shocking moment, demonstrating Tre’s utter ruthlessness, and I actually laughed at one of Erik’s lines. Overall, it’s a case of being able to see where the film-makers are aiming; unfortunately, the results fall significantly short of that target, and you’re probably better off sticking with the obvious sources of inspiration here, instead of this attempt to imitate them.

Dir: Guy Patton
Star: Dana Patton, Scott Michael Morales, Justin Brown, George Morafetis

Painkiller Jane – TV Series

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“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”

painkiller1Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.

painkiller2Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.

After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.

For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.

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That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?

AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!

Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts

The Paleface

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“Starring the two and only Jane Russell.”

palefaceOr, to steal another line from Mr. Hope, “Culture is the ability to describe Jane Russell without moving your hands”. It’s surprisingly advanced for its 1948 era, with Russell playing Calamity Jane, who is busted out of prison to go undercover and infiltrate an arms ring guilty of the heinous crime of selling weapons to Indians. [Because, from a liberal 2015 perspective, god forbid anyone try to even the playing field on that particular genocide…] She’s set up with a cover husband, but when he turns up dead, she’s forced to improvise and settles on ‘Painless’ Peter Potter (Hope), an itinerant dentist, as the patsy for the role, as they join a wagon train heading West. Needless to say, he’s delighted, and the legend of his own mind only grows after he fends off an attack by Indians – unaware, all the sharpshooting was entirely Jane’s doing. For her aim is to set him up as some kind of heroic Federal agent, provoking the gang into tipping their hand with retaliation.

It’s impressively even in tone, with Jane clearly the smarter, braver and more talented one of the pairing, running rings around Peter as she manipulates him into being the unwitting stalking horse for her mission. It’s only right at the end, when they both have (somewhat inexplicably) been captured by the Indians, that he rises above his humble origins and skills, doing his part in a rousing finale involving some brisk horse stunts. Russell’s performance was the subject of some mockery, Life magazine saying at the time, in a feature called Jane Russell’s Gamut of Emotions, “she demonstrates how to express a great variety of emotions, without twitching a facial muscle.” However, I think it has perhaps stood the test of time better than Hope’s comic mugging, playing into the cold and calculating killing machine trope – she would rather whack Potter into unconsciousness than kiss him. Certainly, it has lasted better than Bob’s rendition of Buttons & Bows, which inexplicably won the Academy Award that year for best original song.

To be honest, the comedic aspects also seem rather out of keeping with the body count, though it’s hard to tell how much of this may be parody of the genre – certainly, the site of Potter standing beside a literal pile of native American corpses is more likely to provoke embarrassed silence these days, than mirthful chuckles. The film is on much less questionable grounds concentrating on the nicely reversed dynamic between the two leads; even if this collapses into the obligatory and entirely expected fluffy ending, the final sight gag did actually make me laugh out loud, and that’s not easy to do.

Dir: Norman Z. McLeod
Star: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian

Paradox

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“Yes, we will watch and enjoy Zoë Bell in anything.”

paradoxEven as a scientist. Seemed like a bit of a stretch for one of our favourite two-fisted heroines, but here, it turns out she’s actually an undercover NSA agent. She is only pretending to be a brainiac, whose cover identity of “Gale” is sent in to infiltrate a mysterious, highly secretive project being run in an underground facility by the equally mysterious “Mr. Landau” (Yoba); he has made a fortune on the stock exchange with an impeccable knowledge of its future movements. Perhaps related, turns out his team have been working on a time-machine, though it requires so much power, it fries the grid over a wide area – not unimportantly, sealing them into the underground base. Their first effort involves sending one of the group, Jim (Huss), ahead an hour; the plan is then for everyone else to “catch up.” A few minutes later, he returns, having seen a future where most of the scientists are dead, and the survivors stalked by an unknown assailant. Can their rapidly approaching. lethal fate be changed, or is it immutable?

I’m a sucker for time-travel films, but they need to be rather more rigorous than this one, which feels sloppy both in tone and execution, as if the makers couldn’t decide quite what they were trying for. One minute, it’s hard sci-fi, the next it’s a slasher pic. No, hang on – it’s a romance between Gale and one of the scientists! Wait, it’s suddenly Zoë Bell kicking ass? Not all of these work equally well, and the shifts between them are rarely less than jarring. There are also plot-holes – not so much with the time-travel aspect, which is handled relatively well, despite a film title that almost appears to be apologizing in advance. Most obviously, how does this underground facility have absolutely no stairs? Or, given the first use of the time-machine triggered a massive black-out, why is it then used repeatedly thereafter without issue?

The cast is equally inconsistent. Bell is, naturally, the best, but Yoba (whom we recognized from Alphas) is okay as an enigma dressed in a dark suit. The rest of the performers, however, appear to have been picked up at random from a local community college; someone needs to check if the director owns a white van or has made large, online purchases of chloroform. For the other actors appear capable of delivering lines or showing emotion – just not both, and certainly not at the same time.  This may be where the film comes closest to the slasher film, in that you care precious little for most of the victims or their fate. I’ll admit that we did not see the final twist coming, and like most time-travel films, may merit a second viewing, just to figure out whether or not it still makes sense, in the light of the late reveal. But there are an awful lot of movies further up the list.

Dir: Michael Hurst
Star: Zoë Bell, Malik Yoba, Adam Huss, Bjørn Alexander

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies

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“Not the zombie apocalypse I expected.”

ppz09I’d imagine the market who would most appreciate this – those who like early 19th-century literature, but feel it would be improved by the addition of the walking dead – is rather small, which may explain its lackluster performance at the box-office. Personally, I’m more a fan of Victorian and later work, and have never actually read Pride and Prejudice, so suspect all those aspects here, flew entirely over my head. I have, however, seen more than my fair share of zombie flicks, so that’s the angle from which I will be reviewing this. Several angles surprised me. Firstly, it’s not a comedy. While we laughed, the film takes its theme seriously. Secondly, there’s surprising invention here. It’s not just dropping zombies into a costume drama; there’s thought gone into details of the setting, and also ideas such as the undead initially retaining their humanity.

On the other hand, it’s not the action extravaganza I expected from the trailer, and never achieves the all-out heights of excess I was hoping to see. There are some decent sequences, but a number of missed opportunities, for example, in eye-patch wearing aristocrat, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), who is described as the ultimate bad-ass, yet barely lifts a finger. I expected a massive battle at the end, and didn’t get one; instead, the film almost rubs our face in this, inserting a mid-credits epilogue that’s the biggest tease since the end of My Wife is Gangster 2. Not that you’ll mistake this for anything other than a zombie film, of course, even if it is closer to Pride and Prejudice (and Zombies) – which would make sense since I believe the book was about 85% Austen’s original text. There are still plenty of positives, led by James, as Elizabeth, the feistiest of the five Bennet sisters, whose father (Charles Dance) has brought them up as zombie-killers, much to the concern of their mother (Sally Phillips), who’d rather they married rich.

The story revolves around a love-triangle between Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy (Riley) and Lieutenant Wickham (Huston), unfolding against an the backdrop of an escalating zombie threat, which lurks in almost every hedgerow, whist party and back bedroom. Previously, the walking dead have largely been confined to London, but appear to be developing organization, and given their increasing numbers, this could be disastrous for humanity. Meanwhile, Elizabeth also has to fend off the perhaps even more threatening predations of Parson Collins (Matt Smith), who has been brought in to marry one of the sisters, providing a male heir that will secure the family’s future, since the daughters are unable to inherit property. Her skills are unquestioned, and nicely understated; when Darcy suspects one of Elizabeth’s sisters of being bitten, and releases carrion flies to see if he’s right, she plucks them out of the air, one at a time, and hands them back to him.

Their relationship is another well-handled aspect. This Darcy is not exactly swoonworthy, and hardly the life of the party (no-one who totes carrion flies everywhere they go, ever will be), yet he’s prepared to let Elizabeth be the person she wants to be – a sharp contrast to Collins. It’s her free-spirited nature and stubborn refusal to be ground down by the conventions of society – even the severely-skewed ones of this scenario – which make her an engaging heroine. Other pleasures are the work of Smith and Phillips, adding a great deal of background charm, largely due to their total indifference to the zombie apocalypse – achieving marital bliss is clearly far more important. It probably works better as satire on class, rigid social norms and the British stiff upper-lip, than as real horror; its PG-13 rating obviously limits the latter aspect. As long as you are not going in expecting a Georgian-era version of World War Z, this should be well-made and enjoyable enough.

Dir: Burr Steers
Star: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote

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Petty Treason, by Madeleine E. Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

pettytreasonThis second volume of Robins’ high-quality Sarah Tolerance series has much in common with the first book, (Point of Honour, which I’ve already reviewed here) in style and literary strong points; and of course it shares a protagonist and other continuing characters (and an ethos) with its predecessor, and builds on the premise and events laid out there. While it could be read first and still be enjoyed, IMO the series should be read in order to fully understand the characters and relationships (and Sarah’s unique situation), and appreciate their development here.

Six months have passed since the events of Point of Honor; we’re now in November, 1810. In the background, the Napoleonic Wars still drag on, with widespread dissatisfaction on the home front with the sacrifices the government demands to support and provision the troops abroad; and Queen Charlotte’s poor health fuels the poisonous infighting of Whig and Tory factions as they jockey for the possible appointment of a new regent. The book’s cover copy gives a basically accurate explanation of the case confronting Sarah here –except that this is actually NOT a locked room mystery, classic or otherwise; whoever wrote the description didn’t read the book carefully. It’s not her usual type of investigation, and she undertakes it reluctantly; she’s accustomed to inquire after lost articles, errant spouses, social skeletons in the closet, etc –not to track down murderers. But the events of the previous book have demonstrated that she can do the latter; and since the investigating authorities are inclined to pin this crime on the widow, her brother believes that hiring Sarah might be his desperate last chance to find the real culprit and clear his sister.

Robins has crafted a challenging mystery that will satisfy genre fans, and keep them guessing down to the wire; the deceased had secrets that don’t immediately meet the eye, and he wasn’t the only one with things to hide. The pace of the storytelling and investigating is slow, in keeping with transportation by foot or by horse and communication by written messages; we see investigation conducted as it actually would be in this cultural context and with this kind of technology (or lack of technology). We’re also immersed very much in the daily life of a young woman in the Regency world; the way the author brings the milieu to life is a great strength of the series.

That said, the action component here is significantly greater than it was in the first book, reflected in the kick-butt quotient above, which here goes up a star. There’s also much less in the way of actual sexual situations, though Sarah still lives out back of her aunt’s high-society brothel and is close friends with a prostitute, and though her inquiries here will expose her to the ugly world of sexual sadism, where some brothels called “birching houses” cater to the tastes of males who get sexual satisfaction from beating and brutalizing women. As in the first book, there’s not much bad language here; low-life characters use the f-word three times, but in a context where it’s actually the Anglo-Saxon verb these people would use (rather than as an all-purpose expletive, as we hear it nowadays).

Sound historical research underlies the story here, as Robins makes clear in her appended “History and Appreciation.” The details of English criminal law of that day, as given in the book, are accurate; and the attempt to kill one of the king’s sons, the Duke of Cumberland, by his valet Sallis (who committed suicide when it failed) really did take place in May 1810. (In her alternate world here, Robins took the liberty of moving it to August.) And Cumberland actually was, as here, a scandal-ridden High Tory who wasn’t much loved by the populace. An equalitarian feminist subtext set against the backdrop of a very chauvinistic society (and ours really isn’t much less so, though we’re more hypocritical about it) is another strong point here.

Sarah’s a great heroine, who readily earns this reader’s respect and admiration. The snobbier members of Regency High Society don’t consider her a “lady” (and she doesn’t claim to be), and think an unwise choice made in the passion of teenage love should forever brand her as a moral pariah. But most readers will recognize her as a lady, and a classy one, with a very solid moral compass and integrity. And as the best literature always does, this novel focuses on very real moral choices, that will further temper the precious metal of her integrity in a crucible.

There’s no second-in-the-series slump here; if anything, I actually liked this novel even better than the first one! Next year, I’m hoping to read the third installment of the series, The Sleeping Partner.

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Tor, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Peligro… Mujeres en acción!

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“On Her Mexico’s Secret Service.”

peligrosIn the sixties, it seemed the world was awash in 007-inspired romps, with immaculate-dressed, heroic secret agents from every nation punching, shooting and sleeping their way through friends and enemies, with a quip and a raised eyebrow. One such Bond-wannabe was Alex Dinamo (Alemán), star of two Mexican movies, 1967’s SOS Conspiracion Bikini, and this sequel, made the following year, whose title translates as Danger! Women in Action. Which is where we come in. For despite stemming from a time and place not exactly noted as a bastion of advanced sexual liberation, it manages to be a damn sight more equal-opportunity than any Bond film of its time, or even since. For not only is the chief villain a woman – territory at yet still unexplored by 007 – Dinamo’s is given a sidekick, Maura (Alava), who is equally as competent, and he is happy to use the skill-sets of a number of other women on the battlefield here, without too much in the way of sexist one-liners.

As in its predecessor, the story sees Alex take on shadowy evil organization S.O.S, the Secret Organizational Service, who intend to carry out various terrorist acts in Central and South America, and exploit the resulting chaos. Initially, the target is a refinery in Ecuador, whose destruction will paralyze the country, and it’s only with the timely delivery of information from Barbara (Angely), that the location where the S.O.S. commandos will come ashore is discovered: it’s up to Alex, Maura and Barbara to hold them off in an extended (and quite well-staged) fire-fight. With that dastardly plot foiled, S.O.S’s evil overlady, Solva (Campbell) moves on to a plan to poison the water supply in Puerto Rico with a biological weapon. It’s up to Alex and Maura, this time with the help of an agent working undercover in S.O.S, to foil that plan, by launching an assault on the facility producing the bioweapon. Yeah, there might be some shooting here too. And explosion. Plenty of explosions.

Frankly, it’s strikingly progressive how gender is mainly a non-issue here, though Alex clearly has an eye for the ladies, whose costumes are designed to reveal as much as conceal. In particular, for a terrorist group, S.O.S. appear to be firm believers in affirmative action, with its top tier mostly consisting of women, all the way up to Solva. Similarly, Alex treats Maura, Barbara, etc. as competent individuals in their own right. The main problem is the stuff around the fringes, which is not as exciting as the makers seem to think. For example, there is a sequence of Barbara scuba-diving which seems to go on for ever; while I’m sure that kind of thing was novel and worth touting in the sixties (Thunderball, made a couple of years previously, had exactly the same problem, as I recall), it has not aged well at all. The film is also generally inordinately proud of production values which are no more than workmanlike. On the other hand – literally – you have stuff such as an S.O.S. operative with a gold artificial limb, whom we first see casually sharpening its edge on a whetstone. That’s still pretty cool, and as knockoffs go, this is better than most.

Dir: René Cardona Jr.
Star: Julio Alemán, Priscilla Alava, Elizabeth Campbell, Barbara Angely

Point of Honour, by Madeline E. Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

“I lost my virginity. I lost my innocence. The world seems to regard this as the same thing as honor, but I do not.”
–Sarah Tolerance, Point of Honour

pointOver the last several decades, the detective genre has come to be graced by quite a few brave, gun-packing female P.I.s, who can handle the rough stuff on the mean streets of the urban jungle, as well as the more cerebral arts of observation and deduction. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance is one of this sisterhood, but with a key difference: her beat is the London of 1810, and the guns she packs are one-shot flintlocks –so it’s practical to wear a sword for backup, and luckily her brother’s now-deceased fencing master (with whom she ran away years ago) taught her to use one very capably. The term P.I. isn’t in use in her world; she bills herself as an “agent of inquiry,” a profession she’s created for herself.

For most serious readers, any mention of the Regency period immediately conjures the thought of Jane Austen, who introduced so many of us to it, and directly or indirectly influenced just about every later writer who employed that setting. Robins is one of them; she calls her predecessor “one of the sharpest, funniest writers in the English language,” and tips a hat to her with the opening sentence here: “It is a truth universally acknowledged….” But the rest of that sentence lets us know immediately that her picture of the Regency world encompasses a much broader and darker canvas than Austen’s: this is not only a world of aristocrats and landed gentry, but of harlots and bawds, pickpockets and Bow Street Runners, and a world where sinister things can go on. And where Austen’s heroines might push the envelope of social conventions a bit (Lizzie Bennett, for instance, is smarter and more outspoken than many males then –or now– are really comfortable with), Sarah will outright defy them. The typical Austen heroine doesn’t pack (and use) weapons, wear male-style breeches and ride a horse astride rather than side-saddle, nor live in a cottage out back of her aunt’s high-end brothel and have a male prostitute for a friend.

This book is a bit of a challenge to classify. It’s definitely a mystery (and, before long, a murder mystery); and one with an indebtedness to Dashiel Hammet that I recognized even before reading Robins’ mention of him in the same sentence with Austen –which has to be the first time in history that pair was juxtaposed! But it also has a claim to be science fiction (if you classify alternate-world yarns as SF), because this is a slightly alternate Regency England, where the regent is Queen Charlotte. (Robins explains the few other minor differences in her “Note on History, and of Thanks.”) This isn’t, as some reviewers have supposed, a pointless quirk; it plays into the fabric of Tory vs. Whig political infighting that’s crucial to the plot. (In writing alternate-world fiction, the diverging premise has to be something that could plausibly have happened. That test is met here, since in this world Prince George’s marriage to a Roman Catholic wasn’t kept secret, and was wildly unpopular with commoners and ruling class alike; and there was ample precedent in other countries for royal women to hold regencies, while England itself had had a few ruling Queens.) It brings to life a setting so nearly like real-world Regency England, though, that it qualifies in my book as historical fiction. (Some people have apparently classified it as a “romance,” but it doesn’t follow the conventions of the romance genre as the book trade would define that.)

If classifying it could be a challenge, though, rating it wasn’t. I really like this period of history (as a fictional setting –I wouldn’t have liked to have lived in it!), with its more formal manners and speech, the slower pace of a world attuned to horses and written messages rather than cars and cell phones, the grace of a lifestyle that’s not yet complicated and coarsened by high technology. Added to the appeal of the setting is that of the central character. Sarah is a wonderful, well-realized creation: not perfect, but principled; kind, generous, honest, smart, brave, capable; no bully, but well able to hold her own in a fight –in short, just about everything I admire in a heroine. Robins delivers a page-turning plot, spiced with some action scenes, centering around a mystery that’s really challenging (I figured out most of it slightly ahead of the big reveal, but not all of it!), and does a good job of tying one plot strand, that might have seemed pointless to some readers, to the main plot in a brilliant way. Her style is pitch-perfect for the setting, with a bit of a 19th-century flavor that’s not exactly like the original, but still lets you know you aren’t reading something dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, nor limited to a 200-word vocabulary. She captures a lot of the authentic idioms and flavor of actual Regency speech, and provides enough description to give the writing a “you are there” quality.

Obviously, her treatment of sexual matters is franker than Austen’s, not shying away from the fact that this was a period with a gender-based double standard that stinks as badly as the manure and sewage in the streets, where just one of the king’s sons had no less than 10 out-of-wedlock kids and London alone had some 50,000 prostitutes (by the century’s end, it would be 100,000). But there’s no explicit sex here, and despite Sarah’s “fallen woman” status and sexual choices we might disagree with, she definitely comes across as a woman who takes sex seriously, who respects herself and others, and doesn’t stoop to exploitative or lewd behavior; nothing she’s done or does here makes us disrespect her. As far as bad language goes, there’s some, as there actually was in the speech of that day; not a plethora of it, and I’d guess mostly not too rough, though I can’t tell. This copy was bought used, and it turns out a previous owner used a dark pen to blot out most of the cuss words. (Sigh! As a writer myself, though I personally feel that usually the less bad language a book has, the better, if a writer chooses to put it in, I think his/her choice should be respected enough to let readers read it as it was intended to be, and make their own evaluations of it.)

Every time I read in this book, I was glued to the page; I’d have read it non-stop if I could have, and as it was finished it in just a bit over two weeks, which for me is a pretty quick read, indicative both of its interest level and its smooth flow. I’d love to see it adapted as a movie, provided it was done faithfully (though Hollywood’s track record for faithful adaptations of books isn’t great)..

Note: There’s some bad language here (as there actually was in the speech of that time), but not much of it. I’m guessing it’s not too rough, but I can’t say for sure –I read this in a used copy, and a previous owner had used a dark pen to blot out most of the cuss words!

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Tor, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.