T.N.T. Jackson

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“More of a damp squib than dynamite.”

tntjacksonDescribed in 1975 by no less than Roger Ebert as, “easily the worst movie I’ve seen this year,” Jackson concerns the investigation of the titular T.N.T. (Bell) into the disappearance of her brother in Hong Kong. It seems to have something to do with the drug-smuggling ring run by Sid (Metcalf), whose minions include Elaine (Anderson), who might not be quite what she seems, and Charlie (Shaw), the only person in Hong Kong whose Afro can rival TNT’s for size, firmness or general Afro-tastic quality.  Someone keeps hijacking Sid’s shipments, so Charlie puts together a team of the colony’s finest fighters to protect it: seeing her chance to get into the organization, T.N.T. auditions and gets a job. However, no everyone is as convinced of her innocence as Sid.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the late Mr. Ebert (though the cover on the right likely ranks up there with the very worst visualizations of all time!), but this comes over as a lame imitation of Pam Grier’s genre entries, with a greater emphasis on martial-arts, rather than gunplay or other forms of violence. Which is kinda weird, considering that Bell was previously most famous for being the first African-American woman to be seen on the cover of Playboy. The other oddness here is that it was co-written by cult actor Dick Miller, who had a long career working for Roger Corman, in the likes of Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors. This was the last of his three writing credits; I guess, he figured that after this, things could only go downhill.

There are a couple of scenes of striking brutality – an early arm-breaking and the finale, where she punches her opponent’s heart out – and one, which I’m still trying to figure out if it’s empowering or racist, where T.N.T., keeps turning the lights out because she’s almost invisible in the dark. Well, as long as she doesn’t smile, I guess. The fights are pretty unimpressive, with some painfully obvious stunt doubling for Bell. Truth be told, Anderson probably fares better than the heroine in this category, and the best fight might be between the two of them in a graveyard. However, much of this has not stood the test of time well, and the film desperately needs someone like Grier, to elevate proceedings through sheer force of personality.

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Stan Shaw, Pat Anderson, Ken Metcalf
Previously capsule reviewed in the Women Who Kick Butt box-set.

Teenage Bank Heist

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“Solidly acted and directed TVM, but the script definitely holds everything back.”

Recent high-school graduate Cassie (Cobb) works at a bank alongside her mother (Quinlan), bickering about the usual things, such as whether to go to college or not. This mundance existence is suddenly interrupted by a robbery: Cassie is stunned to realize the raiders are actually some of her school friends. When they realize this, the girls are forced to take her along, and she discovers the cause of the crime – the father of one (Thomson) has been kidnapped while on business in Mexico. Meanwhile, Mom is tracking down her kidnapped daughter, FBI agent Mendoza (Blasi) is also on the hunt, and one of the girl gang has her own plans for the ill-gotten gains, which doesn’t involve any ransom.

I wavered between 2.5 and 3 stars for this, but finally opted for the latter, because of the sheer volume of strong female characters: only one of the seven main characters is male, which is a rarity. The pacing is good, the film hitting the ground running from an intriguing opening scene, before flashing back to the lead-up to the robbery, and there pretty much isn’t a dull moment thereafter. Obviously, the TVM format imposes certain limitations on content, but the movie works within these fairly well, and the performances avoid most of the usual pitfalls and make the girls into fairly well-rounded, rather than irritating characters. Credit particularly Augie Duke as “bad girl” Marie, who has a fiery intensity that’s fun to watch.

So, why was I being indecisive, all the way down in the 2.5-3 star range? It’s the plotting, with a number of elements that are utterly implausible, particular with regard to the crime and how the FBI would handle circumstances. For instance, after getting surveillance footage of a crime, would they allow a witness unsupervised access to it? Do agents meander off to follow said witness out into the desert on little more than a hunch? There are a bunch of similar moments, where it’s necessary to suspend disbelief for plot reasons, not least the ending, which certainly had me raising a sardonic eyebrow and going “O RLY?” If these don’t damage the movie irreparably, they certainly weaken its impact significantly. And that’s a shame, as its strengths still certainly make it worth a look.

Dir: Doug Campbell
Star: Abbie Cobb, Maeve Quinlan, Cassi Thomson, Rosa Blasi

Tokyo Gore Police

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“The middle word in the title is easily the most applicable. Far and away.”

In the near-future, Japan is plagued by “engineers” – criminals who have voluntarily undergone genetic modifications, which not only mutate their bodies in bizarre ways, but give them near superpowers and the ability to sprout weapons from their wounds. To combat this, the privatized Japanese police force under their chief (Benny) has an absolutely no-holds barred policy of shoot first, ask questions… Well, don’t bother asking questions. Their top “engineer hunter” is Ruka (Shiina, whom you may recognize from Audition), the daughter of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty while she was just a young girl. She is tracking down the scientist behind the engineers, known as “Key Man” (Itao) because of the key-shaped tumours which trigger the mutations. But when they meet, he infects her – and also reveals the truth behind the deaths of both their fathers.

The most obvious parallel would by Robocop, not only in the cautionary tale of law-enforcement run for profit, but also the sardonic commercials which pepper proceeding, showing how brutal society has become [here’s an example, for a wrist-cutting knife]. It’s against this backdrop that the cold, to the point of being emotionally-dead, heroine plies her trade, troubled by a past that she can’t forget. Shiina is certainly good at that kind of role, but it’s more or less a one-note performance, that doesn’t provide much reason for the audience to empathize with her. However, I get the sense that, as far as director Nishimura is concerned, characterization is probably not quite the main thing he’s concerned with here.

That would, instead, be the splatter, which goes to a whole new level, even by the outrageous standards of the genre. The arterial spray is so copious and powerful that, at one point, an engineer uses it to propel himself about, like a haemoglobin propelled jet-pack. That pretty much sums up the tone to be found here, with body parts also flying when not attached to their owners. It’s arguably the goriest movie ever made, though I’d have to re-watch Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead before I can be certain on this front. However, there isn’t quite enough to sustain it, especially at a fairly extended running-time of 110 minutes. While there no shortage of surreal imagination on view (like the creature which has had all four limbs replaced with samurai swords), and it’s undeniably the most OTT of its siblings, this probably works better as a party tape, playing in the background for your next Halloween bash, given its apparent apathy towards more conventional cinematic attributes.

Dir: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Star: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Shoko Nakahara

Touch and Go

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“Nice opening, solid middle… Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”

This 1980 film was originally called Friday the Thirteenth, but went through a title change in production, after they discovered some other film with that title being made… No hockey-masks to be seen here: instead, it’s the story of three young women, Eva (Hughes), Fiona (Contouri) and Millicent (Duncan), who start robbing places, largely for amusement – they donate the proceedings to an orphanage. However, after one of their victims ends up making far more money than they do, thanks to a bogus insurance claim, they switch targets and set their sights on a bigger fish, in the shape of a luxury hotel which contains a bank, jewellery store and other treats. This requires expanding their team, but with larger hauls come larger risks, as they find out, even once the actual crime has been carried out.

As a light, frothy Ozploitation and distaff take on something like Ocean’s 11, it’s aimiable viewing, bubbling along on the charisma of its leading ladies – one a locksmith, another a bored housewife, the third a children’s radio presenter. In contrast, the men are not exactly the sharpest tools in the box, easily manipulated, even the policeman that Millicent is dating. The main issue is a plot which has the heist taking place somewhere near the middle of the film, when it should probably have been the climax. It’s a nicely-put together extended sequence, but the post-heist antics are easily the least interesting aspect of proceedings, sliding into borderline farce.

The performances are pretty good, even Hughes as a slacker gardener – I say “even”, since he was better known as a singer-songwriter, still fairly well-known down under, and also did the film’s soundtrack. Hughes is the likely standout, and has gone on to have a solid career in film and TV [she played the aristocratic woman with whom Phoebe Cates came to stay in Princess Caraboo]. She and her co-stars keep this a fluffy confection that, while dated, has not been too badly crippled by the passage of three decades. Well, not nearly as much as the unfortunate scripting which leaves the viewer feeling almost like they’re watching the reels out of order.

Dir: Peter Maxwell
Star: Wendy Hughes, Chantal Contouri, Carmen Duncan, Jon English

Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom

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“Or, as Chris called it, ‘Lynch Law Lolitas’…”

This was the title that finally ‘broke’ Chris, and she wondered what the hell I was Googling to come across this movie. Shame she missed it, as despite some rather nasty sexual sadism, it’s among the best of the genre. Girl gang leader Noriko (Sugimoto) is assigned to the “School of Hope”, a morally-bankrupt educational establishment for delinquent girls. It’s principal is entirely ineffectual, and it’s actually run by the vice-principal (Imai), with the collaboration of the “Disciplinary Committee,” a group of the girls he allows to dish out punishment. Noriko isn’t going to stand for that, and teams up with a sleazy journalist (Watase) to bring down both the Committee and those in charge.

Right from the opening scene, where the Committee drain the blood of a victim, before she falls to her death from the roof, this certainly grabs the attention. Another review described it as, “Like Mean Girls via Caged Heat as written by Jess Franco and directed by Russ Meyer,” and that’s about as accurate a synopsis as you’ll get. The girls – not just ‘Noriko of the Cross’ [which she has tattooed on her inner thigh], but also “Razor-blade Remi” and the members of the Committee – are undeniably hardcore, and not the kind of people you want to cross. Yet, other sequences are outright misogynistic, such as one pupil being punished by having a light-bulb inserted into her, then being forced to do push-ups. Where did that come from? There’s also a lengthy omorashi fetish sequence. Look it up. Could have done without it as well.

But if you can get past that – not that I would blame you if you couldn’t – the good stuff outweighs the bad. You can even read a socio-political subtext into this, as the early seventies were a time of political instability in Japan, with their Red Army group in operation. The main theme is power: the struggle to achieve or hold on to it, and the final ten minutes, with the entire school rioting and taking on the Japanese police with rocks, stick and other weapons is pretty much a middle finger at all authority. Almost all such structures are portrayed as rife with corruption, and if the male side of the species is not subject to the same level of brutality, they’re cynically depicted as relentlessly perverted and driven by their brains. The only honour or humanity to be found here is with Noriko and her allies, in a severely screwed-up world, and it’s this transgressive approach that deserves approval.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Tsunchiko Watase, Kenji Imai

True Grit

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“Forty years later, the Duke has become the Dude, with a small Duchess.”

Based on the original source material – which was very much focused on John Wayne – and the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking of this as just another macho Western. However, I read some pieces which suggested that wasn’t the case, with the story [as in the original novel] told from the viewpoint of teenage girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), who hires drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the outlaw (Brolin), who killed her father. That is indeed the case – despite Steinfeld getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, while Bridges was listed for Best Actor. Go figure.

For Ross is one of the most impressive teenage girl characters to appear in a recent Hollywood film, being resolute, smart, brave and resourceful: that’s clear from the scene where she completely out-haggles the businessman with whom her father had been dealing. You can almost imagine Mattie growing up to become Marge Gunderson in the Coen’s Fargo: there’s much the same dogged determination, in a form which causes those who oppose Mattie to severely underestimate her. More in tune with her age, I was also reminded of Lyra Belacqua from The Golden Compass, whose heroine also found herself with an unenviable task, and had to man girl up and get through it. Here, from the moment Mattie plunges into the river on her horse, while Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Damon) watch from the far side, she’s in a completely different, alien world.

I was much less impressed with Bridges’ performance. Fair enough that he chose not to try and reproduce Wayne’s iconic role: however, the route in which he chose to do so is unfortunate, not least because it’s largely inaudible. He mumbles every line so badly, you’re largely reduced to picking words out where you can, and trying to work out what he said by the other characters’ replies. It’s only right at the end that he comes across as being much more than a drunken buffoon, and it’s difficult to fathom why Ross picked him rather than LeBoeuf, who projects a far more compelling air of confidence. With Wayne, there was a sense of faded, decrepit glory: Bridges’ version of Cogburn is less a has-been than a never-was.

That said, there’s something refreshing about the way this is…well, not refreshing. By that, I mean there is little or no attempt to re-invent or “reboot” the Western genre: it’s lasted for approaching a century, so the basic tenets don’t really need changing. So while there are some understated moments of humour, e.g. the last words of the men about to be hanged, the focus is clear: Mattie and her goal of extracting justice on the man who killed her father. It’s a simple story, well told.

Dir: The Coen Brothers
Star: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

The Tournament (2009)

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“The exotic life of an assassin is all glamour and exotic places, e.g. all-expenses trips to Middlesbrough.”

Every seven years, thirty of the world’s greatest assassins gather together for a battle. The winner gets $10 million, while bettors view the action remotely and gamble on the duels, face-offs and bloodbaths which ensue. Each assassin has a tracker implanted, and has a scanner where they can see the location of any other contestants nearby. This time, it’s in Middlesbrough, England, with reigning champion Joshua Harlow (Rhames) returning after he it told the murderer of his wife will be taking part. One of the 30 dumps their tracker into an alcoholic priest (Carlyle), who is “surprised”, shall we say, to become the target for the other 29. Lai Lai Zhen (Hu) realizes he’s an innocent, and vows to protect him, while also trying to win the competition.

The concept is, of course, completely implausible, and if you can’t drive a bus and a tanker through holes in the plot, you’re not trying. There are far too many assassins, too: of the 30 listed, probably no more than half a dozen get any lines, so they’d have been better off shrinking the number and giving them actual personalities. What results is basically “kill porn”: a massive number of deaths, some impressive, a couple genuinely spectacular, but possessing no emotional content or resonance whatsoever. That said, this is by no means unentertaining. Hu (I have consciously got to stop myself from calling her “Cindy-Lou”) seems to be carving a niche for herself as a low-rent version of Lucy Liu, and the action here is decent, and undeniably copious.

It all builds to a massive chase on a motorway, which sees the bus driven by the priest, being chased by the tanker driven by Harlow, while Zhen fights off the parkour guy from Casino Royale, in, on and around the bus. Mann has clearly been watching all the right movies, and if he needs a trailer reel for a career as a second-unit director, then he should just pop the DVD in and leave the room for 90 minutes. The writers, on the other hand… It really took three of them to come up with this complete nonsense? What did they do with the rest of the beer-mat?

Dir: Scott Mann
Star: Kelly Hu, Robert Carlyle, Liam Cunningham, Ving Rhames

Taking the Heat

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“Because the more accurate, Taking the Luke-warm, wouldn’t exactly fly off the shelves.”

Michael Norell (Goldwyn) sees mob boss Tommy Canard (Arkin) whacking a debtor, but won’t admit it to the cops. However, when they look at the credit-card transactions, the truth comes out and Detective Hunter (Whitfield) is sent to retrieve the witness; Canard, thanks to a mole, also finds out and send his top hitman to ensure Norell never reaches the courthouse. A heatwave has simultaneously hit New York, leading to blackouts, gridlock and a breakdown in communications, so it’s down to Detective Hunter, back on her old stomping ground, to negotiate her way through the traffic jams and dodge the killers out to get Norell.

The IMDB states this 1993 film is a TV movie. Some language and one brief nude scene seem to argue against that, but with some minor trims, it could certainly play on television, and there are some aspects, such as the Patrick Williams original score, which appear straight out of TV-land. The story is hardly novel – Midnight Run is perhaps the best-known example of the ‘Protect the irritating witness’ thriller, and if you’re looking for a distaff version, In the Line of Duty IV has more martial-arts, courtesy of Cynthia Khan and Donnie Yen, than you could possible want. This isn’t up to the level of either of these, and barely scrapes by as an acceptable way to waste ninety minutes on a wet weekend.

The film does occasionally get away from the pedestrian, but the potential inherent in the scenario, as the city swelters and boils in the heat, turning into an urban jungle, is largely wasted. There are some moments which work quite nicely, such as Hunter and Norell picking their way through a booby-trapped drug den, but it’s largely predictable stuff, with the heroine and her charge initially bickering like cats and dogs, then – over the course of a mere few hours – falling for each other. For most of this, I couldn’t help thinking, Whitfield is no Pam Grier – though in her defense, few people are, and she does well enough, I suppose. If there’s nothing else on TV, it’ll do.

Dir: Tom Mankiewicz
Star: Tony Goldwyn, Lynn Whitfield, Alex Carter, Alan Arkin

Tank Girl

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I now understand why this…ah, “tanked”

The creators of the Tank Girl comic once said: “It’d be cool if a bunch of tinseltown producers could get hold of her, totally misunderstand what they’re dealing with, ignore our advice, and bring out a movie that would bomb, alienate our fan-base, destroy the comic, and bankrupt the pair of us in the process.” Mission accomplished. I never really liked the original comic, but the anarchic appeal of a minor cult classic is almost entirely removed, in favor of a lead character who never gets beyond irritating. The setting is the same: a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is almost entirely under the control of the evil Water & Power, headed by Malcolm McDowell. When his minions destroy the compound where ‘Becca (Petty) and her pals live, she is enslaved, but escapes with the help of Jet Girl (the then-unknown Watts) and teams up with the shadowy, feared Rippers to take on W&P.

It’s clear what the aim is here: one of those feisty, “riot grrls”, who takes no shit and kicks ass, right alongside men. Very cool. However, whether due to bad scripting, poor casting or rampant studio interference – most likely, a combination of all three – the results are dire. Without wishing, in any way, to promote violence towards women: ‘Becca would benefit from a good slapping, and is less an anarchic anti-heroine, than a badly-behaved nine-year old. Outside of McDowell, who could perform this kind of evil overlord role with his eyes shut, the supporting cast are forgettable, outside of Ice T, who simply looks embarrassed to be there, in his role as a mutant kangaroo warrior. I imagine his agent had some explaining to do after that.

There are only a couple of moments where the necessary surrealness peeks though, such as the perky musical number; more of this kind of delirious insanity, could have been a suitable replacement for the ‘drink beer, smoke tabs’ sensibility that characterizes the comic. Instead, this is neither one thing nor another, a self-conscious attempt to create a cult movie, that implodes in its own timidness. Bizarrely, Devo covered their own song, Girl U Want, for the opening titles, because the Soundgarden version was too expensive – and managed to completely screw it up, with a dirgeful rendition which sucks all the energy out. That largely sums up the disaster which is to follow.

Dir: Rachel Tallalay
Star: Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Malcolm McDowell, Ice T.

Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles

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“Could do with some more action, yet still more than acceptable.”

The double-pilot. Probably deserving of a place on the FAQ is, “Why don’t you include Sarah Connor?” The reason is simply that she was a supporting character in the first two Terminator films; one essential to the plot, that’s for sure, but clearly over-shadowed by her male counterparts in both movies. The TV series finally moves Connor (Headey) front and center, and also adds an additional action-heroine dimension, in the shape of Cameron Phillips (Glau), a schoolmate of John Connor’s who turns out to be a new model of Terminator, sent back to watch over him. The show starts in 1999, a couple of years after the events of Terminator 2, but soon shifts to the present day; it thus largely ignores the timeline of Terminator 3, in which Sarah Connor was reported to have died of leukemia in 1997.

The concept, as explored in the first two episodes, is very familiar: Sarah must protect son John (Dekker), so he can lead the human resistance after Skynet declares war on us. Skynet sends its unstoppable robotic henchmen back in time to take him out, but she also has an unstoppable robot of her own – this Terminator is more advanced than Arnie’s, being capable of ingesting food. However, there is further development, with the interesting idea that the future John Connor has sent back other humans, to provide a support network for Sarah in her struggle. It is only brushed against in the opening two hours, but may be developed in further episodes. There is also an FBI agent (Jones), who has been hunting Connor since her escape from the mental asylum, and her former fiancee, on whom Sarah bailed.

Glau and Headey both have action experience, from their roles in Serenity and 300 respectively, and they bring the necessary resilience to the role. Glau has a balletic grace and flexibility which helps make up for her obvious lack of size, and while there is clearly some body-doubling done, it’s mostly well-handled and the editing of the fight sequences is above-average. We also liked the deadpan portrayal she brings to the role. Headey does not yet exhibit the ferocious passion which Hamilton brought to her role, so that’s something we want to see develop, and we also hope they do not get bogged down and become a ‘Terminator of the Week’ show. It seems that time-travel may be a significant part of the story, and this would open up an almost infinite range of possibilities. This was a solid, entertaining opening, and fingers crossed the rest of the series can build on the potential.

The rest of the series If there’s an unfinished feel to the show, that would be because it was. Thanks to the writer’s strike, the final four episodes never made it to the screen, and the storylines will be incorporated into the upcoming second series, confirmed by Fox in April. While not perhaps the makers’ fault, it undeniably had an effect, basically leaving us to turn to each other at the end [which involved a car-bomb] and go, “Is that it?” The rest of the series, however, wasn’t so terrible, though it did feel somewhat stretched. The main plot threads were extensions of the pilot: a) the Connors trying to stop Skynet from becoming active, in particular through locating a chess computer called The Turk, and b) evil Terminator Cromartie trying to stop them. There’s also c) an FBI agent (Jones) who is trying to piece together the pieces, trailing both parties, and d) the arrival of Derek Reese, the brother of Kyle and therefore John Connor’s uncle.

The extra time available to a TV series does allow for expansion, perhaps most notably that Skynet does more to try and affect the past than just send back Terminators – it is supposed to be a super-intelligent system after all. On the other hand, the action elements are significantly reined back, perhaps in association with budget restrictions. However, I particularly liked the SWAT assault on Cromartie in the final episode, set to Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around, which I’ve loved since they used it in the opening to the Dawn of the Dead remake. Needless to say, that goes about as well for the SWAT team as you might expect. Glau is particularly good, with her character actually developing in unexpected ways, such as discovering a taste for ballet.

However, there has been a fair bit of sniping regarding Headey, comparing her physical presence unfavourably (the word “weedy” gets used a good deal) with Linda Hamilton’s. Said one such critic: “There are two issues here: having a toothpick-thin, feeble-looking Sarah Connor is a crime against the iconography of the character; and presenting a clearly emaciated actress as a heroine is a crime against women.” Headey’s response was blunt and to the point: “It’s a TV show, for God’s sake!” – and I’m inclined to agree. We’re dealing with a series about time-travelling robots here, folks. If you seek role models for your body here, there’s probably no hope for you. Here’s to the second series, especially if there’s more ass-kicking from Headey and Glau.

Dir: David Nutter and others
Star: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Richard T. Jones