Ro’s Handle, by Dave Lager

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Although I didn’t set out to, in roughly the past year, I’ve read no less than three novels, and one short e-story, that feature female cops as protagonists: this one, “The Academy” (the short e-story that’s the teaser for Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series), Tami Hoag’s A Thin Dark Line, and Justin W. M. Roberts’ The Policewoman. It occurred to me that an instructive way to open this review might be to compare and contrast the four works.

Like Tracy Crosswhite, Lager’s Rowan (everybody calls her “Ro”) Delahanty is a state champion in pistol shooting, who goes into law enforcement as a career. (Ro also has a black belt in judo.) And like Hoag’s Annie Broussard, she becomes a sheriff’s deputy. (Her milieu is a county dominated by a mid-sized city, sort of a median between Tracy’s Seattle and Annie’s backwoods south Louisiana parish.) The principal difference here is that both Tracy and Annie started their careers with ambitions to become detectives, and they’re protagonists of mystery series. This book has no mystery elements as such, and Ro’s vocational interest is strictly being a uniformed beat cop. She’s also younger than Tracy, and had already decided to become a cop as a fifth grade kid (whereas Tracy switched careers after teaching high school chemistry for several years), and she doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of a sibling who was murdered and a parent who committed suicide. (Instead, the Delahanty family is impeccably wholesome and normal.) So Ro’s definitely her own person, not a Tracey Crosswhite clone. And where “The Academy” focuses on the theme of sexism and sexual harassment as a challenge female cops have to face, those elements are very limited in this book, only show up near the end, and manifest themselves only in comments that aren’t made to Ro’s face.

Both Roberts’ Sarah and Ro are basically gun wizards (who, of course, have to put in a lot of training and practice to get and keep that level of skill, in addition to their natural talent!) formidable in combat, and drawn in such a way that some readers will view them each as something of a “Mary Sue” –that is, a heroine who’s too perfect to be realistic– though I didn’t see them that way. But although I classified both this novel and The Policewoman as action-adventure, the action elements in the latter are a LOT more prominent than they are here. This one has only one action scene, and that starts only in Chapter 22 of a 29-chapter book. Some readers (though I wasn’t in that number) of Robert’s book took issue with the first four chapters of character introduction/development and stage setting as being supposedly too slow-moving and boring. Those readers would really have an issue with the first 21 chapters here. And the shooting itself is actually over very quickly, as it would be in real life. Fans who have to have unremitting slam-bang action and a high body count will find this aspect limited and tame here. (Again, I’m not in that number myself, and I actually found that aspect of the book very well done.)

All three of the novels compared here provide the heroine with a “love interest” and have some “romantic” elements, including some unmarried sex. But (though I won’t include any spoilers) the overall handling of the “romantic” aspect here was, for me, highly unsatisfactory and off-putting, and would not, IMO, generally appeal to “romance” fans either. It should also be noted that the relationship escalates to sexual intercourse on the first date (which is the third time the couple have seen each other!), so has very marked insta-love issues. And Ro’s lover here is a divorced dad 13 years her senior, who has a 15-year-old daughter (Ro’s only 21).

You might ask, if this isn’t a mystery, a full-blown action novel, or a real romance, what IS its appeal? What sort of novel is it? I’d describe it as very much an intensive character study of Ro, and a very realistic “slice of contemporary life” novel describing the world of a rookie female cop. Lager obviously has a practically exhaustive knowledge of police equipment, organization and procedure, which gives the work a great deal of authority. Ro is a round, three-dimensional protagonist with a lot of depth to her development, and does exhibit some admirable, heroic qualities. (Frank is developed well too.) As his fascinating blog entries indicate, Lager has a mental picture of Ro’s entire life history from childhood on and a comprehensive understanding of all her characteristics as a person. He doesn’t feed us ALL that information here (the novel only covers the time beginning with her winning the Iowa state shooting championship in April 2003, shortly before joining the sheriff’s department, to September 2003, when she earns her “handle,” or nickname for radio identification purposes, and sort of becomes one of the guys -she’s currently the only female deputy). But we get a lot of it, including a thorough introduction to her family, a few glimpses of her childhood, her orientation week, her habits, life and dislikes, stuffed toy panda, etc. By the time this is over, we know her like a real person (and probably like her –I did, and do!)

This is not, of course, the stuff of high drama. Some readers will feel that the plotting and development of the story is way too slow-moving. The heavy accumulation of detail and description, including things like the menus for people’s breakfasts, description of Ro’s underwear, the specifics of what she and other characters are wearing, etc., contributes to that impression. Related to this, there tends to be a lack of meaningful conflict in the story-line until towards the end. (For instance, both Ro and Tracy Crosswhite are champion competitive shooters, and we see them both in competitive settings. But where Tracy is being scored on her pistol shooting in “The Academy,” it’s at the climactic moment of the tale, and the outcome is in doubt until the end, making for genuine suspense and tension. In Ro’s championship competition, on the other hand, I never really felt any element of suspense or tension, and her win is almost anti-climactic.) Only near the end is there a situation where Ro is in real danger and engaged in actual combat; only near the end is there any real sense of possible conflicts in her relationships with other deputies, and only near the end is there any real question about the nature of her relationship with Frank. Most of the story is pretty much a matter of day-to-day life (with the exception of starting a dating relationship). As might be expected from a college speech teacher, Lager’s technical mastery of prose style is quite professional; there are just a very few places where minor editing would have helped.

For me, this book was difficult to rate, because there are aspects I really like and aspects that I really dislike. I didn’t mind the slow-paced build-up quite as much as some readers probably will, because I was interested in learning about Ro and what makes her tick, and about the workings of a modern sheriff’s department (I learned much that I didn’t previously know, and I think most readers would). IMO, the action scene was good, the handling of the psychological aspects of the aftermath struck me as true to life, and the ending worked very well for me. The Ro-Frank aspect of the plot ultimately proved to be a major liability in my estimation, which dragged down the rating. If the book were written with no “romantic” element at all, just as a straight police-life and action story, I’d probably have given it five stars. As it was, the romantic-erotic parts earned one star. Overall, I decided to split the difference and give the book three, since I liked much of it. (And yes, I will read the sequel!)

I was gifted by the author with a review copy of this book, but no guarantees that I’d like it were offered or expected. Nor did World Castle Publishing (which also publishes my novel) put any pressure on me to write a favorable review (and I would have canceled my contract with them if they had!).

Note: This novel has only one explicit sex scene, but it occupies a very prominent position in the strictly-linear story arc, and it’s extremely, graphically detailed, with a “you are THERE!” immediacy. There is a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, religious profanity, the c-word to describe part of the female anatomy, etc. (Some, though not all, of this reflects real-life cop culture.)

Author: Dave Lager
Publisher: World Castle Publishing, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter

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Barb Wire… In space!”

Actually, if only this had been that, it would likely have been a great deal more entertaining. The most obvious point of comparison is lead Birdsall: as the poster on the right shows, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Pamela Anderson. The setting is also dystopian SF, though even more so than in Barb Wire. This takes place after a decade-long apocalypse, which pitted mankind against the artificial intelligences we had created, they having decided we were more a problem than a solution [coughSkynetcough] What remains of the human race, is now struggling to survive in the blasted landscape which remains.

Among them is Sienna (Birdsall), who hears of a planet which contains weapons that can fry the AI circuits, before they can carry out their nefarious plan to download all of humanity’s consciousness into the Matrix. She puts together a plucky team of stock cliches – the geek (McGrath), the muscle-bound fighter (Crawford, clearly the low-rent Vin Diesel. Seriously, he used to be on the British version of Gladiators, and his character was literally called “Diesel”), the robot with a line of snappy repartee – and flies off in a spaceship to find the bombs which are humanity’s last chance. On the way, they meet up with another robot – this one a pleasure model (Park) – and learn some rather disturbing revelations about Sienna’s own past [coughTyrellCorporationcough].

These revelations do, admittedly, explain her stylistic choices – and, cynics might suggest, her approach to acting. In between a fair amount of futuristic chit-chat of varying interest value, there’s a lot of running around deserts, pretending to fire laser weapons at robotic enemies that, very obviously, aren’t there at all. The physical look of the film isn’t actually too bad; the cinematography has a fairly epic scope to it. The main problem from a visual standpoint, is the CGI has been meshed very badly with the real footage: you never escape the knowledge that the former has been pasted on top of the latter. If your script is going to span the galaxy and feature multiple human vs. robot confrontations, you need to be able to deliver. It has been twenty years since Starship Troopers came out, and its CGI still kicks this film’s ass from here to Klendathu.

While not entirely devoid of pleasures, the ones to be found here are mostly minor. Birdsall does actually have some screen presence, and certainly looks the part, in a Barbarella-esque kind of way. There’s a nice scene at the beginning, where she’s trying to escape in a car which has an auto-pilot, and it refuses to leave until it has gone through its entire checklist of new driver items. That kind of self-effacing humour is something the film needed in greater quantities, and would have helped defray the woeful inadequacy of the technical elements, for wit is cheap. Though on the evidence of this, not as cheap as the visual effects software used here. If that isn’t good enough to let the audience take your film seriously, you probably shouldn’t either.

Dir: Neil Johnson
Star: Tracey Birdsall, Tim McGrath, Daz Crawford, Ashley Park

Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Manchester Detective Sergeant Jan Pearce is part of an investigation into local crime lord, Connelly, whose family has managed to evade the reach of the law for decades. Indeed, this is the second recent investigation, the previous effort having collapsed, apparently due to procedural blunders. But the boss isn’t taking it lying down, beginning a campaign of intimidation against those investigating him. This hits DS Pearce, with the disappearance of her teenage son, Aiden: she’s convinced this is retribution from Connelly. But neither her colleagues on the force, nor her ex-husband, Sal, agree – they think Aiden simply ran off.

When investigating one of Connelly’s properties, Pearce finds the body of an old woman – along with a bag of cash and her hand-written memoir. It turns out the deceased, Bessy, and Jan had something in common – both had sons that went missing. As she reads the memoir and proceeds with the investigation of Connelly, Pearce gradually realizes that might not be all she shared with Bessie. But the truth about what is actually going on, in the underworld hidden below the working-class estates of Northern England, is infinitely more terrible than either of them would ever have imagined. And considering Bessy thought her son might be a victim of the infamous Moors Murderers (whom she refers to, only as “him” and “her”), that’s saying something.

I’m very much impressed by the way Ward is able to write in two entirely different voices. The sections which are Bessy’s writings, are completely different in tone and style from Jan’s, to the point it almost feels separate novels have had their chapters intertwined. The two women are opposites in many ways. Jan is a career policewoman, who has sacrificed a lot for the job – maybe too much, including her marriage and perhaps even her relationship with Aiden. Meanwhile Bessy is a housewife of the 1960’s, with no interest at all beyond being a home-maker. But the sudden loss of their child turns their worlds upside-down, and forces them to reassess what truly “matters”. Bessy’s life is, literally, never the same again, and there’s undeniable poignancy there, especially near the end of her story.

Both exhibit an utterly dogged determination to pursue what they see as the truth, regardless of the cost or what others may think. In Jan’s case, that leads her into direct peril, because she’s going up against some very dangerous people, who have good reason to prefer privacy. There’s a certain amount of happy coincidence needed for her to unravel the threads, yet there’s no denying her bravery, intelligence and tenacity. The special ops skills, of surveillance and its avoidance, don’t hurt either, though I’d have liked to see more of them being put to use. While the first in the series, it works as an entirely stand-alone novel. If you manage to see where this is going before it happens, you’re a better armchair detective than I.

Author: Jacqueline Ward
Publisher: Novelesque, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

The Rebel

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“No, we still don’t get to win this time.”

In 1920’s Vietnam, the French are in control, but there’s a burgeoning insurgency. Vo Thanh Thuy (Ngo), the daughter of the rebellion’s leader, is arrested during an assassination attempt on a high-ranking colonial officer, but is broken out of captivity by Le Van Cuong (J. Nguyen). He’s an agent in the secret police, but has grown weary of the conflict and the toll it is taking on his fellow countrymen. Vo needs to return to her father and tell him about the mole in his organization, but the pair are pursued on their way back by Sy (D. Nguyen), Le’s sadistic superior.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, albeit with one significant twist that I won’t spoil – though must confess, didn’t come as much of a shock. However, it benefits from a fresh setting, a slick look that combines well-executed period atmosphere and solid production values, and reasonable performances. On a few occasions, I was reminded of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, which has a similar feel, not least in a portrayal of the colonialists that would never be described as remotely sympathetic. Still, this was intended for local consumption, and did very well when it came out in 2007, setting a Vietnamese box-office record for a locally-produced movie.

The main selling point in the West would be the fights, which are particularly hard-hitting. It appears Vietnamese martial-arts owes more than a little to Muay Thai, incorporating a lot of the same elbow and knee strikes. The version depicted here is also flamboyant on occasion, with J. Nguyen in particular flying through the air to deliver spinning kicks to his opponent’s head. For our purposes though, the focus is on Ngo, who was already famous in her home country at the time as a singer and actress, Indeed, she already had martial-arts experience, thanks to Rouge, her 2004 MTV series which “follows a Southeast Asian all-girl rock band who are also high-tech special operatives working for a global crime-fighting organization.” As they do. [Have a promo clip.]

Ngo certainly delivers, producing an impressive set of moves that are virtually the equal of her male co-stars, with balletic grace that reminded me a bit of a young Michelle Yeoh, culminating in the move captured on the right, and seen in the trailer, which is a wonderful cross between MMA and lucha libre. I don’t know why she hasn’t subsequently become a star, though did have a supporting role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny last year, so is still active. Her character is certainly the emotional heart of this film, and is more important than I expected.

If there’s a flaw, it’s mostly Sy, who is not much more than your standard frothing psychopath, and the efforts to give him back-story fall completely flat. He appears impervious to edged weapons, for some reason which is never explained and is entirely wasted as a plot-point. Indeed, most of the story is fairly obvious, and I’ll confess to rolling my eyes occasionally, at the blossoming relationship between Vo and Le. The positives, however, outweigh the problems, and this is a straightforward and two-fisted tale, generally well told.

Dir: Charlie Nguyen
Star: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Dustin Nguyen, Stephane Gauger

The Assignment

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“(Gender) Identity crisis”

I’m a big fan of any film with an outrageous premise, and this one certainly delivers. Mob hitman Frank Kitchen (Rodriguez) carries out his latest job with no qualms, killing a debtor. What he doesn’t realize is, the victim’s sister is a talented but EXTREMELY twisted surgeon, Dr. Rachel Jane (Weaver). She vows to take revenge on Frank by removing what she feels matters most to him: his masculinity. Kitchen is knocked out, kidnapped, and wakes up in a seedy hotel room, to find herself in possession of a couple of things she didn’t have before, and missing something she used to have. But gender reassignment does not make the (wo)man, and an extremely pissed-off Frank vows revenge of her own, both on Jane and Honest John Hartunian (LaPaglia), the former employer who betrayed Kitchen.

Said director Hill, “Is it lurid? Yes. Is it lowbrow? Well, maybe. Is it offensive? No. I’m just trying to honor the B movies that we grew up with.” Maybe he needed to take that actual step and actually be offensive. For I guarantee you, something like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS clearly did not give a damn about anyone who took offense at the concept, and was all the better for it. The only time this succeeds in provoking similar feelings of “What is this and why am I watching it?”, is when we get to see Rodriguez come out of the shower as male Frank, sporting a prosthetic penis.

The issue here is not the concept: if you have an issue with it, the solution is simple enough. Don’t watch. It’s fiction. It’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of gender reassignment surgery, any more than Face Off was a documentary about facial reconstruction. I’m more amused by the reactions of people who can’t distinguish reality from cinema, asking questions like “Why is gender reassignment being depicted as a cruel punishment?” The answer is blindingly obvious: because it results in someone trapped in a body that’s the wrong sex for them. I would have thought the trans community might empathize with that. Apparently not.

No, the problem is… It’s not actually a very good film. It’s told mostly in flashback, Dr. Jane telling her story in a straitjacket to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Galen (Shalhoub), and this helps leads to a muddled and confusing structure, when a straightforward linear narrative would likely have served the story better. The action scenes are also almost perfunctory: I’d have expected a lot better from the man who gave us an all-time classic in The Warriors. Mind you, that was a long time ago [though the script which formed the basis for this, also dates back to the seventies], and he hasn’t done anything of note since – pauses to check Wikipedia – uh… Last Man Standing, maybe? That was 1996. I saw it in a Dublin cinema, and fell asleep. Though that might have been the Guinness.

It may also have been a misstep (cisstep?) to have Rodriguez play both halves of Kitchen. She’s fine on the female side, delivering her usual tough attitude, entirely befitting the project’s original title, Tomboy. But she’s less than convincing as an “actual” man, looking more like Captain Jack Sparrow after a metrosexual makeover. I did like Weaver, delivering a mix of coolness and taut insanity that is interesting and unsettling to watch. However, the negatives outweigh the positives, and we’re left with a film that’s difficult to defend, purely on an artistic level. It is, however, the first time I’ve ever been uncertain whether a film should be included here, due to uncertainty over the “heroine” part of “action heroine”…

Dir: Walter Hill
Star: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia

Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues

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“A not-so-animated feature”

The rating here is largely based on my (I’d say, not unreasonable) expectation going in, that this would be actual animation. It isn’t. This appears to be, what I’ve since learned is called, a “motion comic”: think of it more as an illustrated radio play, with voice actors playing the parts in front of somewhat animated panels. And when I say, “somewhat”, I mean there is typically no more than one thing moving on them e.g. a character’s mouth. I can see comics for which this approach would work; unfortunately, a heavily action-oriented story such as Red Sonja is not among them.

It’s a shame, as the story and voice acting are both quite well-done. Sonja (Lee) and another prisoner are rescued by King Dimath, from a dungeon where they had been forced to fight other captives for the amusement of their captors. Years later, Dimath sends Sonja a call for help. His kingdom has fallen prey to a plague, and a horde is about to sweep through it, intent on salting the earth to prevent the disease spreading. And, wouldn’t you know it, commanding that horde is Annisia (Strom) – who just so happens to be Sonja’s co-captive from her time in the dungeon. Her experiences have pushed her into quite a different psychological path, shall we say.

It reminds me more than a little of the Xena: Warrior Princess arc which pitted Xena against her own blonde nemesis from the past, Callisto. That’s not a bad thing, and there’s no shortage of strong female characters, such as the bow-wielding bodyguards Dimath dispatches to stand alongside Sonja. Admittedly, they are more used to taking out rabbits – which may or may not be a Holy Grail reference. Yet what they lack in combat experience, they more than make for in the effusive complimentary terms by which they address Sonja, e.g. “your radiant ladyship,” “majestic blade mistress,” “our glorious sword princess” or even “she of the excellent cleavage”!

Lee certainly gives it her all, and so do the rest of the cast. It’s just that this needs a far greater range of motion than it gets here. These should be epic battle scenes, drenched wall-to-wall in blood and flying body parts – not still panels, with maybe an arm holding a sword moving slowly across the frame. If this had been the full-on animated feature I was expecting, all the other pieces are in place for it to have surpassed, by far, the woeful Brigitte Neilsen movie. It’s a damn shame the approach taken, instead robs all these aspects of their vitality and energy. What you’re left with falls short of reading the comic, because you have someone else turning the pages.

It’s barely an adequate place-holder for the proposed live-action version. That feature has been circling development hell since it was announced in 2008, with names as diverse as Rose McGowan, Megan Fox and Amber Heard linked to it. Last I heard was Feb 2015, when a new writer came on board. At this point, I’m certainly not holding my breath…

Dir: Gail Simone
Star (voice): Misty Lee, Becca Strom, Shannon Kingston, Tyler Nicol

The Rowdy Girls

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“If Andy Sidaris directed a Western.”

rowdygirlsThe self-awareness of the film’s own silliness is clear, virtually from the start in which a singing cowboy – referred to in the credits as a minstrel – strolls through the countryside, crooning his ballad of the titular ladies. He pops up intermittently throughout to narrate, and it does a good job of setting the tone: clearly, this is not intended, in any way, to be a serious look at historical life in America. It is, very much, gyno-centric: beyond the leads, this was also written by two women, including India Allen, who was the 1988 Playmate of the Year. Not just a pretty face, then.

The three characters at the center have different stories, that all end up taking them to the same place. Velvet McKenzie (Tweed) has bailed out of her life in a bordello, with a travel-bag full of cash, and is travelling disguised as a nun. Sarah Foster (Brooks) is similarly making a break, fleeing an arranged marriage and heading for San Francisco, on the same wagon as Velvet. But in their way is Mick (Strain), member of an outlaw gang and the leader’s lover; the group rob the stagecoach, taking both Velvet and Sarah hostage. The attack is interrupted by the local sheriff, until Mick slides a knife between his ribs; that just sets his younger brother, Joe Pepper (Varga) on the trail of both the criminals and their captives.

No shortage of curvy nudity here, as you’d expect given the cast, though it certainly qualifies as being at the tasteful end of the spectrum. There is probably more of a plot than you would expect too, with loyalties and alliances shifting over the course of the 87 minutes, and despite its B-movie origins, the production values are better than certain Troma movies I could mention [though I’m not entirely sure about the credibility of some of the costumes, which appear more Victoria’s Secret than 19th-century Western America!] Strain is particularly fun to watch, not least because her 6’1″ frame towers over some of the male cast, and her attitude is equally imposing, but Tweed, well into her forties at the time, is by no means outclassed.

Sure, the makers of this have set their sights low, not appearing too interested in offering up much more than a soft-core exercise in historical inaccuracy. Adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing was thus likely a wise movie, effectively defusing most of the (numerous) critical arguments which could be made against it. Manage your expectations, therefore, and those expectations will be met. For as soft-core exercises in historical inaccuracy go, you could certainly do an awful lot worse. Below, courtesy of Troma, you’ll find the whole thing, so you can judge for yourself!

Dir: Steven Nevius
Star: Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Deanna Brooks, Richie Varga

Resident Evil: The Novels, by S.D. Perry

I will cheerfully confess to never having played any of the Resident Evil video-games at all. Everything I know about its universe, I learned from the films starring Milla Jovovich. It was thus something of a surprise to learn that her character, Alice, was entirely created for the films, and doesn’t appear in the game series at all. That said, there’s a reason why Paul Anderson opted to make his hero a heroine. The series has been emphatic about being thoroughly equal-opportunity in its carnage since 1996. It was then the first game came out, as Biohazard in Japan, offering players a choice between playing as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.

With the film series coming to an end (supposedly!), it seemed like a good point to dip into the more “authentic” parts of the universe. I don’t have the time or enthusiasm for the games, but figured the novels, written by S.D. Perry, would fit my lifestyle nicely. There are seven of these, with five being novelizations based on the first five games, along with two original stories, which take place between #1 and #2, and #2 and #3 respectively. While they’re not as thoroughly heroine-centric as the movies, they’re no less equal-opportunity than the games, with Valentine leading a swathe of solid and strong female characters.

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The Umbrella Conspiracy

In the opening book, we follow members of  the S.T.A.R.S. task force, investigating a series of brutal murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City, only to be trapped in a manor house. This turns out to be a research facility for the Umbrella Corporation, abandoned after an accidental release of T-virus and now inhabited by zombies and other unpleasant creatures. These include cannibalistic plants and the “Big Bad”, the Tyrant, the end result of prolonged exposure to the virus.

In terms of spirit, this isn’t dissimilar to the first film, which similarly had a group of soldier types exploring a research complex infested with both monsters and traps, albeit a far larger one. The book’s origins as a game are sometimes clunkily obvious here, with traps and puzzles showing up in the prose here, in ways that would only make sense in a Playstation context. It’s also a little heavy on minute details, such as getting very specific on the layout of the house, which really doesn’t deserve as many words.

There’s a multi-threaded storyline, focusing on Redfield and Valentine, but also involving the other members of the S.T.A.R.S. team, and this works better than you might expect. Perry keeps all the balls in the air effectively, and things converge nicely on a rather Aliens-esque finale, the team rushing to escape the facility before it self-destructs. Which probably makes sense, as Perry also wrote several entries based on the Dark Horse Comics Aliens series

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Caliban Cove

The second book takes place between the first and second entries in the game series, rather than being an adaptation. Despite this, it feels similar to the first novel, with another S.T.A.R.S. team – this one not officially sanctioned – investigating another Umbrella facility gone awry. In this case, however, it’s not the result of an accident, but deliberate malfeasance. Rogue biochemist, Dr. Nicholas Griffin, has created a virus which turns humans into zombies, and now is preparing to unleash that virus on the world.

The main heroine is Rebecca Chambers, the teenage biochemist who is the only significant player here carried forward from Book #1. So, I guess she’s playing the Ripley in Aliens role. The “puzzles” the team need to solve barely register: “As I was going to St. Ives…”? Really? Guess Perry didn’t see Die Hard With A Vengeance. The other weakness is the author’s struggles with the action sequences; while these are fine when it’s one-on-one, the depiction of anything involving more participants becomes hopelessly jumbled and confusing.

There are some positive aspects. One perspective provided in the book is that of someone infected by the virus, which is chilling in its depiction of the inexorable loss of control. Some of the monsters are also nicely done, particularly the aquatic Leviathans, whose understated descriptions are quite Lovecraftesque.  Otherwise, though, this feels too much like a retread of its predecessor, in both style and content.

City of the Dead

A novelization of the second game, this introduces two major characters. Along with Claire Redfield, who arrives in Raccoon City seeking her brother, the other hero is Leon Kennedy, a newly-assigned cop. Both are understandably disturbed to find it the epicentre of a zombie outbreak, and have to survive those and a bevy of even nastier monstrosities. There’s also Ada Wong, an independent agent, who has been sent in to obtain a sample of the G-virus, the even more twisted successor to the T-virus.

This is a relatively straightforward tale, simply and effectively told. That said, the Aliens aspects are almost overwhelming. Monster which crawls down your throat, gestates for a bit and then comes out? Check. [The book even calls it, “A chest-bursting parasitic creature. straight out of a sci-fi movie”…] Heroine who ‘adopts’ a little girl who has been scurrying around, trying to survive and hide from the monsters? Check. Frenzied rush to escape, as the location counts down towards complete immolation? Check.

Otherwise, though, it’s not bad at all, even if I could probably also have done without the clunky romantic tension between Kennedy and Wong. I definitely wish they had made this into a movie; Redfield and Wong provide enough action heroine-ness to go around, and the chief human antagonist is also female, Umbrella researcher, Annette Birkin. Perry delivers a solid page-turner, engaging in spectacularly moist prose to describe the creatures now roaming Racoon City.

Underworld

Sadly, not the hoped-for crossover featuring Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale. Instead, it sees a five-person team of former S.T.A.R.S. sent to Utah, where the mysterious Trent tells them a simple retrieval mission awaits. Needless to say, it proves to be anything but, with the team separated. Three members are stranded up top, facing Umbrella security, while two are stuck below, to run a gauntlet through four test areas, stocked with some of Umbrella’s most lethal creations [It’s a little like the simulations in Resident Evil: Retribution, but with different terrain types, rather than different cities]

Indeed, this was disappointingly heroine-light: Leon and John Andrews do most of the heavy lifting, as the pair trapped in the underground complex. Rebecca and Claire are both left up top, and the former is wounded while trying to hide from the security team, so is more an encumbrance than an asset to her colleagues. That only leaves Claire; while brave and resourceful, she’s a civilian, with a civilian’s skill-set, and the ass-kicking which results is inevitably limited in its scope.

Like Caliban Cove, this is a standalone work rather than an adaptation of a game, though the structure of the test areas certainly has the feel of stages, with the “Fossil” at the end undeniably Boss-level. I did enjoy the “first-monster” perspective section, telling events from Fossil’s point of view; it’s a somewhat chilling angle, since its life is “Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” But overall, this would likely have been significantly improved if there had actually been considerably more Selene.

Nemesis

I was surprised to discover in the course of this one, the short time frame over which this all takes place – it’s only about six weeks since the events of the first novel, and we’re already into the fifth installment, based on the third computer game. The central characters here are Jill Valentine, returning from The Umbrella Conspiracy, and new hero, Carlos Olivera, an Umbrella operative who is unaware of the company’s secrets.

The latter is dropped into Raccoon City on a supposed rescue mission, really intended to provide data to the corporation, and it’s not long before he’s the sole survivor of his platoon. Meanwhile, Valentine seeks her own way out, having abandoned her humanitarian efforts, but is trailed by the Nemesis, a particularly unstoppable Umbrella creation programmed to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. The human villain is another Umbrella soldier Nicholai Ginovaef, a psychopath with his own agenda.

It’s decent enough, and good to see Valentine again, who kicks ass solidly. Its origins as a game occasionally remain too obvious – the laser cannon sure is convenient! – though at least the puzzle aspects are more restrained. Ginovaef is a nasty piece of work, especially disturbing since much of it is told from his perspective. Something of a shame he doesn’t get the deserved comeuppance, at the hands of Jill, since the game is played largely from her perspective (Olivera being a helpful NPC). Though Perry probably should have skipped the feeble attempt to explain her tube-top and miniskirt costume. “Mobility”? Suuuuuure…

Code: Veronica

Looked like earlier entries in the series were building toward a raid by the ex-S.T.A.R.S. on Umbrella’s European headquarters. But this entry leaps over it entirely, and the subsequent capture of Claire Redfield, and begins with her locked up on Rockfort Island, a remote corporation outpost in the Southern Hemisphere. The facility descends into chaos after a T-virus outbreak, and she is set free by a sympathetic employee, to fend for herself among the weaponized creatures roaming the isle. They’re overseen by Alfred Ashford, who’d be described by any passing psychiatrist as “batshit crazy”; she teams up with another prisoner, the even younger Steve Burnside. Cue romantic tension…

You sense even Perry is becoming jaded by the repetitive nature of the source material. Early on, Claire quips to herself, “What’s a biohazardous disaster without a crazy or two?”, and later, Steve wonders, “Keys and emblems and proofs and submarines; it was a wonder [Umbrella employees] ever got shit done.” However, Redfield’s return is as welcome as Valentine’s was – pity the game makers never saw fit to team them up. And if the nature of Alfred’s insanity will come as absolutely no shock to anyone who has seen Psycho, the story here then layers an additional level of horror on top, rescuing it from the over-obvious.

It felt like the novel is going to end at the 3/4 point, but the plot suddenly diverts to Antarctica for a final section. Claire’s brother, Chris, shows up at Rockfort in search of her, then ends up near the South Pole as well, where we get the grand finale, which seems tacked on. Again, hard to blame Perry for this, and likely not her fault either that, despite being the last novel chronologically, it offers very little in the way of a true conclusion.

Zero Hour

Hang on, didn’t you say Code Veronica was the last novel? Ah, important word there: “chronologically”. For Perry finished off the series with another novel, which comes at the beginning; it covers the first S.T.A.R.S team to come into contact with the results of the T-virus, whose ‘chopper goes does in the woods near Raccoon City. In particular, it’s the story of Rebecca Chambers, then on her first mission. She comes across a train which has been attacked by persons or creatures unknown, and also Billy Coen, a prisoner and former soldier who escaped while being taken to an impending execution.

On balance, I should probably have read this one in its position at the beginning. If there’s not much lost, I was aware Rebecca survived to appear in the subsequent entries, and Coen is nowhere to be found, so there wasn’t much tension here. However, the small cast – there is hardly anyone else present – does mean Perry has the chance to give the characters more depth than some entries in the series. The Coen/Chambers pairing is a good one too, matching up brawn and brains respectively, and I didn’t even mind the inevitable unresolved sexual tension too much.

What I particularly liked was the sense of vulnerability that we get from Chambers. She isn’t an unstoppable ass-kicking machine – frankly, after the preceding novels have left the score S.T.A.R.S 6, Umbrella 0, that’s a refreshing breath of fresh air. It left me wishing I’d seen more of her in the series.

All told, even as someone who has never so much as picked up one of the games, I generally found the novels entertaining. They’re a fast, easy read: my main criticism would be they’re too loyal to the puzzle-solving aspects. These may be an intrinsic part of the game experience, but fail to transfer at all well on to the printed page. But the books do offer a potential route forward for the film franchise, if they decide to continue with it, on past the “final chapter”.

Perhaps the main criticism from existing fans is the way they diverted from the games, but these novels do show, a more faithful adaptation can work as entertainment. There would still need to be some adjustments – tone down the puzzle solving and probably find out a way to limit the need for multiple perspectives too. But there’s little doubt that the characters, situations and monsters offer plenty of cinematic scope, and CGI has improved enough since the original movie in 2002, it is now capable of doing the creatures justice. If Sony opt to reboot, they could go back to Zero Hour, introducing Rebecca, then move into The Umbrella Conspiracy for the rest of the S.T.A.R.S. team. It would be a seam of fresh material, and one potentially also embraced by those “long-suffering” game fans.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life.”

We’d skipped the last two installments at the movies, having been burned by part three, but after the excellent content of #5, and since this was likely to be our last chance, Chris and I made it a “dinner and a movie” thing on Saturday. Was disturbed by how many kids there were for this R-rated film – hell, even a couple of babes in arms, whom I’m sure loved the non-stop violence. I guess it was deemed kid-friendly by their parents, with this one getting its MPAA rating just “for sequences of violence throughout,” rather than anything truly corrupting, such as momentary Milla mammarage. Cutely, the feature was preceded by a quick personal message from director and star, thanking us for their support of the series. Yeah, it’s utterly meaningless, but nice to be appreciated.

Onto the movie, which I think probably would have been better received by us as a stand-alone entry, if we hadn’t watched parts 1-5 last weekend. #QuickPlug: re-reviews of all those to follow later this week. For there seems to be an awful lot of ret-conning going on, in particular for the Red Queen, played here by Milla’s daugher, Ever. Not only is her origin story drastically revised from Apocalypse, there’s also a new, Robocop-esque rule that she can’t harm Umbrella employees. [I note that Anderson even lifts the same escape clause used by Verhoeven] Must be Red Queen v1.1, because all the workers at the Hive she killed in the original movie, didn’t seem to benefit from this protection…

The story sees Alice (Jovovich) returning to Raccoon City, seeking the airborne antidote she discovers – from of all people, the Red Queen, little Miss Laser Corridor herself – was created by Umbrella. If Alice can release it into the wild, it will take out all the T-virus infected. Which is a bit of a problem since, don’t forget, the list includes our heroine herself. Standing in her way is Dr. Isaacs (Glen), who has set his plan in motion to exterminate the last remaining pockets of humanity and complete his apocalyptic vision thing, along with a massive swarm of zombies he’s leading back to the Hive. On Alice’s side are a few of those final survivors, including Claire Redfield (Larter) and Abigail (Rose), adding extra girls-with-guns firepower – as if it were really necessary here.

The main problem is this: editor Doobie White really should lay off the caffeine. I don’t think it’s Anderson’s problem, as Retribution was perfectly fine in this area, but the hand-to-hand fights look like they were edited by putting them through a highly enthusiastic wood-chipper. They stay just about on this side of incoherent, but you don’t so much watch these, as experience them on a subliminal level. Maybe it’s a result of protagonists Jovovich and Glen being in their forties and mid-50’s respectively: I know if I was appearing in an action movie, you’d certainly have to edit the hell out of me to look good! But it’s still annoying as hell. The best sequence is when the camera sits back a bit and we can actually appreciate Alice, dangling from an underpass, as she beats up a posse of hapless Umbrella drones (below).

Due to this, the film is at is most effective in other areas, mostly when going wide and giving us a look at the bigger picture, specifically the sheer scope of the devastation and conflict. There’s a couple of scenes where I think the zombie count may have surpassed World War Z, and that volume is undeniably impressive. It requires, naturally, equally large-scale defense and the sequence where the humans create multiple waterfalls of fire is startling and striking. An an aside, I note the film cost only $40 million, which is $25m less than last time, and little more than the price-tag for the original, 15 years ago. Anderson is clearly great at getting bang per buck, and if the box-office reception was lukewarm in North America, the film has already almost made its cost back in Japan alone.

I also was glad to see Glen back, and just as in #3, he brings a human face to the evil corporation. [Yes, he died at the end of that one. No, it’s not a problem.] I envisage a long career for him, in the mode of Charles Dance and Alan Rickman, being the go-to guy whenever a film needs a solidly British villain. Here, he gets to show a couple of facets, both coldly calculating and manically psychotic, and is fun to watch in both. But, of course, it’s Milla’s show, and she also gets to do a bit more than you might expect: if you ever wondered what she’ll look like in her seventies, this movie will answer your question. Though going by how little she seems to have changed over the decade and a half of the series, if she looked exactly the same at that age, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Otherwise, she has become Alice, adopting a world-weary stare here, reminiscent of our cat when we annoy him. It seems to say, “I could get violent, but you’re just not worth the effort,” while she re-enacts some of the series’s greatest hits, such as the laser corridor, or a whole pack of zombie dogs (well, more dog-shaped things, to be honest). Is there closure for Alice? Yes, although not as much as I would have liked. The film had a chance to draw a line under itself in permanent marker, and allow Milla to go off into the happy suburban life her character briefly enjoyed in #5. Sadly, the script doesn’t quite have the courage to do that; let’s just say, if Mr. and Mrs. Anderson need an extra wing on the mansion the franchise’s profits has bought them, it won’t be impossible.

All told, if you’ve got this far in the series, you’re not likely to be disappointed, except by the over-active editing. If you haven’t, this is certainly not going to convince you of its merits. And that’s okay too.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Ian Glen, Ali Larter, Ruby Rose