Elite

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“Because Mediocre  wouldn’t sell as well.”

A mission in central America against drug cartel boss Reynaldo Benitez (Garza) goes wrong, leaving eight Special Ops soldiers dead. This includes the husband of Naval Covert Operations Command agent, Abbey Vaughn (Gregory), who is intent on discovering the truth about what happened to her spouse. She links up with the only survivor of the operation, Lt. Sam Harrigan (Scarbrough), now living in a trailer, and spending his time drinking and practicing golf. Together with the rest of their team, they investigate the case, only to find the tentacles of organized crime are deeper embedded than they appear, and their inquiries put not only themselves, but Abbey’s family in serious danger.

The performances here aren’t the problem. Gregory and Scarbrough are both effective enough, and the supporting cast are equally watchable – special credit to Rousseau as team hacker Jazz, a character of whom I’d have liked to have seen more. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are also better staged than I was expecting. It appears a lot of the performers have MMA experience, along with indie wrestler Mike Dell, and this gives the fights a solid amount of credibility, with the punches appearing to have an impact on their recipients.

If only the same could be said for other aspects, which outweigh the positives overall. First, and largest, is the bane of many low-budget movies: bad audio. I had to sit with my finger on the remote control, perpetually adjusting the volume – one scene too loud, the next inaudibly quiet. The foley work on the gun-battles was simply laughable, using electronic bleeps and chirps that made bursts of semi-automatic fire sound more like birdsong. In general, anything involving armaments was problematic and unconvincing, with the production able to afford little or nothing in the way of collateral damage, to people or property.

The other main problem for me was the script, consisting of a collection of clichés and by-the-number plot points, without any genuine surprises to be found. It might have passed muster for a less discerning audience in the mid-eighties. Though unless they found the basic concept of moving pictures novel enough to be a distraction, I’m not even sure they would be satisfied. For example, immediately we saw the heroine’s father and daughter, I could guess exactly what their role in the film was going to be, and went 2-for-2 in my expectations.

It was particularly disappointing, because story-line is an area where resources shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, it will limit the scenarios open to the film-maker; however, you should still be able to do more than trot out hackneyed elements, arranged in a way that alternately bores and confuses (quite why an NCOC agent was conducting an investigation of a drug cartel escapes me, and I’m still uncertain whether a major character ended the film alive or dead). Even with a higher tolerance for small-budget cinema than most, this was still more chore than pleasure.

Dir: Mark Cantu
Star: Allison Gregory, Jason Scarbrough, Ione Rousseau, Larry Garza

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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“That is the beauty of being a soldier. Right there in that moment with your rifle propped up against the dirt, knowing that even if you don’t get to be the guy up at the front shooting, you have a sector that is yours and you know in your heart you will shoot any enemy that comes into it. That’s how simple it is.”
— Kate Raimann, CST

North Carolina National Guard Follow 1LT Ashley White-Stumpf 1st Lt. Ashley White, 24, was assigned to the 230th Brigade Support Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina National Guard, Goldsboro, N.C., and attached to a joint special operations task force as a Cultural Support Team member. She was killed October 22, 2011, during combat operations when the assault force triggered an improvised explosive device near Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Photo via U.S. Army Special Operations Command)While operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army realized there was a gap in their operation. The entirely masculine nature of their forces hampered intelligence gathering because male soldiers were unable to work effectively with the women and children present on the ground, a result of a culture which severely restricts inter-gender interaction. This was potentially lethal, as the women could also be used hide weapons and explosive. To address this, in 2010 a forward thinking group of the military sought to get around the archaic ban on women troops in combat situations, by creating Cultural Support Teams, formed of women who could accompany the special operations forces on their missions, officially in “support” roles, and question the women who were often the best informed with regard to the movements and actions of local insurgents.

The female soldiers selected for the task needed a particular set of skills – not least an unusual amount of physical fitness, since they would have to keep up in the field with the likes of Army Rangers. But they would also require “soft skills”, such as the ability to draw information from civilians quickly, by establishing a relationship of trust, while also being able to assess the information rapidly for accuracy. Despite the obvious risks and challenges, the program attracted interest from current members of the Army, National Guard and Reserves, intrigued by the possibilities and keen to be part of history. Lemmon tells the stories of a number of these women, going through the selection process and their training, then into their deployments. In particular, she looks at 1st Lt. Ashley White, a woman considered by those over her as “sweet enough to be a Disneyland greeter,” yet who became the first CST member killed in action, and who earned a place on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor, despite the lack of full official endorsement for her role at the time.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do White and the other women justice, in part because you’re more than half way through before they’ve completed their training, which is probably the least interesting aspect of their stories. Lemmon’s style is placidly uninteresting too, and fails to paint a picture of the soldiers as individual characters; she may, perhaps, be trying to tell too many stories here, and especially early on, this results in a jumble of faces and names that fail to make much of an impression. Things do improve a fair bit once the women touch down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Lemmon does generate a good deal of tension telling the stories of their missions – typically in the dead of night – to help the Army Rangers hunt down and capture insurgents. Though, even here, I’d have liked to know more details of who they were targeting, let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt and say that operational security limited the amount of specifics that could be included.

The book doesn’t pull its punches in describing the events surrounding Ashley White’s death, and it’s a sobering reminder of the realities of war, especially a non-traditional one, against a fluid enemy, such as is the case here. You can literally be a step away from death; in this case, White’s translator moved away to adjust her night-vision goggles and so survived the IED blast which took the life of her comrade. Of such fragile choices can life sometimes tilt. But only sporadically does Lemmon capture this, or at the other end, the adrenalin rush eloquently expressed in the quote which starts this piece, and which does more to explain why people serve than hundreds of pages of mostly bland prose, as served up here.

Publisher: Harper, $15.99 (paperback) $14.99 (Kindle), available through Amazon

Zero Motivation

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“Inaction heroines.”

zeromotivationWhile a period of national service in the armed forces may seem a good idea in theory, this satirical Israeli film is likely a good depiction of what it means in practice: a lot of thoroughly unmotivated soldiers, who just want to kill time and GTFO back to civilian life. This may not seem like an inspiring subject for a movie, yet somehow, ends up an endearing and amusing look at life in the armed forces, when your chief responsibility is basically to be in charge of shredding unwanted documents. For there is, it appears, a lot of bureaucracy and shuffling of paperwork in the the Israeli army, and that’s what Daffi (Tagar), Zohar (Ivgy) and their colleagues have to do.

They work in the office of their base, under the wary guise of long-suffering matriarch officer Rama (Klein), who tries to encourage their military habits into concepts such as, “Being a paper shredding NCO is what you make of it.” Of course, being young women, they are more interested in men, personal drama and owning the office high-score on Minesweeper. Or in Daffi’s case, getting out of the desert and being sent to an urban post like Tel Aviv. That requires her completing officer training, but when she does, Daffi discovers exactly why Rama perpetually has that look, and sets up a staple-gun shoot-out (right) with Zohar, after Daffi tries to erase her games.

Writer-director Lavie based the script on her own experiences, saying, “Like most girls during their two years of service, we didn’t risk our lives. But we were definitely in danger of dying of boredom.” There’s definitely an air of Private Benjamin here, and in particular Goldie Hawn griping, “I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms. ” While the conscripts here are under fewer illusions on their way in, it does a wonderful job of illustrating the gap between the broader perception of army life, and the tedious reality, which involves far more meetings, forms and guard duty. And for the last-named, not even the exciting stuff at the gates, but safely inside the base, where the sole “threat” is soldiers who can’t find the canteen.

The film is loosely divided into three sections, and it manages to juggle the comedic and dramatic elements quite nicely, so that some quite sharp shifts in tone are not too jarring. It’s certainly a concept which could easily be extended to a TV series – think M.A.S.H. in the Israeli desert, though I would certainly not have minded some more actual action. As is, the film may be almost the antithesis of what you’d expect in a “girls with guns” movie, yet you’d be hard-pushed to conclude this was a particularly bad thing. What it may lack in pulse-pounding, adrenalin-powered gunplay, is balanced by a selection of quirkily entertaining characters and a sharply-observed script.

Dir: Talya Lavie
Star: Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Dana Ivgy, Heli Twito

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

Lunatic Frog Women

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“How can you not love a film with that title? Well… “

This came out the same year as Golden Queens Commando and Pink Force Commando and feels like a Taiwanese knock-off, taking a similarly bulk approach to its action heroines. They escape from (what I discovered lately was) a North Vietnamese prison, with the help of the warden, who is in love with one of his captives – he comes along too, and they all end up on an island where there’s a guerilla force, run by the Captain, whom we’ll get back to later. They become part of her “Ladies Marine Corps”, and start to train. One of the girls’ mothers shows up, offering to take her back to Hong Kong, but the farewell party is interrupted by pirates, who kill the mother. Two of the platoon desert. Finally – and we’re talking an hour into a movie that runs only 85 minutes – the training is over, and the Slightly-Irritated Frogwomen (movie titler, please note) head off on their first mission, to recover a cache of diamonds hidden on a North Vietnamese boat.

I confess a palpable sense of disappointment when I realized that title was inappropriately spaced: it should be “Frogwomen” – as in scuba divers, not the bizarre results of some medically dubious experimentation. Which would have been a great deal more entertaining than watching apparently endless training footage of them swimming underwater, which is nowhere near as exciting as the director thinks. Indeed, between the opening prison-break and the final assault, this is incredibly dull, to the point that, between the film and my wife’s pasta (which should only be available with a prescription, and not eaten before operating heavy machinery), it’s possible I might have closed my eyes and listened to the dialogue now and again. The action, when it eventually appears, isn’t bad: however, there’s far too little of it and the film’s pacing is terrible.

Minor points to note. If the soundtrack seems like it comes from a totally different film, that’s because it did. Alex In Wonderland notes it comes from The Road Warrior The three names listed above are the only ones listed in the credits of the English-language version, which seems only to exist in a version with Greek subs. It’s not clear if those actresses include the only now-recognizable face – I suspect no-one would have predicted at the time, that she’d go on to play, 18 years later, a major role in a movie nominated for an Oscar. For the captain is none other than Cheng Pei-Pei, who was Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger. Who knew?

Dir: T. Som Chai
Star: Patty Tie, Cathy Lee, Diana Dee
a.k.a. Virgin Commandos

G.I. Jane

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“The training Jane stays mainly in the pain…”

The opening hour of this must be great entertainment for sadists, watching Demi Moore get pummelled, ground-down, chewed-up and beaten into a bloody pulp by the war machine, as part of Navy SEAL training. The first woman to go through it, she could open the door for others if she succeeds – which is exactly why the stops are pulled out to ensure she fails. While the most obvious face of this is Master Chief Urgayle (Mortensen – his character here would eat Aragorn for lunch), her political mentor Senator DeHaven (Bancroft) also finds the pressure coming down to pull the plug on this social experiment. But Jan…er, Jordan O’Neil (Moore), won’t give up at any cost, demanding absolutely equal treatment. Of course, after what seems like a 75-minute training montage, she wins the respect of her colleagues, overcoming the Senator’s intervention thanks to a peskily imperfect fax machine.

An eye-poppingly brutal look at what our soldiers go through (leaving me with even more respect for them), it’s the second half where the movie kicks into life. Their final training mission has the SEALS diverted to Libya to help recover a device containing weapons-grade plutonium. This “no man left behind” would be revisited by Scott – and cranked up to the max – in Black Hawk Down, but the restraint he shows here is a lot more effective. To me, showing ability in a combat situation, as our heroine does, would seem a better way of obtaining the admiration of your fellow soldiers – rather than telling Urgayle to “Suck my dick!” But, hey, I’m a civilian, and very happy to be one, so what do I know? It’s a shame there wasn’t a resulting franchise; as the last hour shows, there is a lot of potential for development, with O’Neil kicking butt in a variety of exotic foreign locals. However, at 43, Demi Moore is perhaps too old these days. What’s Jessica Alba doing?

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Bancroft, Jason Beghe

Dead Men Can’t Dance

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“Army women are only twist to very routine action flick.”

Plotwise, this is a by-the-numbers action thriller about a special forces group on a mission in the Korean Demilitarised Zone, who get embroiled in a CIA operation to retrieve nuclear triggers. Why it merits any coverage here, is because their command structure is matriarchal, from Brigadier General Burke (Zabriskie), through their operational leader and former agency operative Victoria Elliot (York), down to Staff Sergeant Rhodes (Barbara Eve Harris), who could give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money – Ermey, incidentally, turns up as the CIA boss.

This does add a nice bit of sexual tension to matters, as the leader of the CIA team is Elliot’s lover, played by Michael Biehn – what are the odds against that? Characters like Zabriskie and Harris are fun to watch; however, the action is lacklustre, consisting largely of running around and firing automatic weapons, while the plot is painfully obvious – helpful of the Koreans to build their nuclear facility within convenient walking distance of the border. Still, had to laugh at the reason for betrayal given by the (inevitable!) CIA traitor: “large sums of hard cash, what else?”.

Dir: Steve Anderson
Star: Kathleen York, Michael Biehn, Adrian Paul, Grace Zabriskie