Taking Lives


“Another great concept is let down by depressingly obvious scripting.”

Rarely has a film started so promisingly, and gone so consistently downhill. The start is fabulous, with one of the most shocking moments I’ve seen…though if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have had it spoiled. But regardless, the first time we meet FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Jolie), on special assignment to Montreal, she’s lying in a grave. She is hard as nails, and takes absolutely no crap from anyone: her local friend, Captain Leclair (Karyo) hardly needs to bother protecting her, despite the nicely-handled cross-border tension. The case is that of a serial killer who, as the title suggests, inhabits the lives of his victims: the crack comes when his mother (Rowlands), believing him dead for two decades, spots him in Montreal by chance. However, the only other person to have seen the suspect is art-gallery owner James Costa (Hawke), but Scott starts finding her emotions getting in the way of her work…

Which is where the film loses its way, deflating like a leaky balloon. We are forced to watch the inevitable sexual tension between these two characters; seeing Scott go about her business would be infinitely less cliched and predictable. There is a twist that is so obvious you’d need to be unconscious not to see it coming – though I’d forgive you for falling asleep during the aforementioned sexual tension – and a final act that appears to have been taken from a bad 80’s slasher movie. These failings merely open the door for you to stare more closely at the plot, and you realise large chunks of it are on wobbly ground. For example, Scott deduces from a draft that a bookcase must conceal a hidden door: er, why not simply an A/C vent? Part Se7en, part Silence of the Lambs, this comes over as taking the less effective elements from each film, leaving the potential of a female Sherlock Holmes sadly under-realised.

Dir: D.J. Caruso
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Tchéky Karyo, Ethan Hawke, Gena Rowlands

Thriller: A Cruel Picture


“Lives entirely up to its Swedish title: Thriller: en grym film.”

Right from the first scene, depicting the molestation of a young girl, this is remarkably unrelenting stuff. 15 years later, the heroine (Lindberg), turned mute by her ordeal is kidnapped, turned into a junkie and forced in prostitution. Oh, and had an eye destroyed by her pimp (Hopf) – in loving, close-up, slow-motion that is rumoured to have involved a real corpse – after clawing the face of her first client.

Finally, it becomes too much, and she starts – with striking methodicalness – to prepare her revenge. She learns shooting, martial-arts and driving skills, and loads up with a sawn-off shotgun, as well as a handgun hidden in her hair, and goes around blowing away everyone she deems unworthy [Though how does she know where to find them? I imagine it’s not as if they hand out their home addresses…], before challenging her pimp to a duel in the bleak yet beautiful Swedish countryside.

The impact on Kill Bill, both in storyline and style (Elle Driver, in particular), is obvious – not to mention Ms. 45 – but Vibenius has a far less frenetic approach. Indeed, his style is so deliberate, you may be forgiven for dozing off, even during the fight scene, which uses such slo-mo as to become almost surreal. It’s a refreshing antidote to the MTV-style editing beloved by the likes of Alias. Less successful is the hard-core sex; while it certainly has an impact, it’s a double-edged sword, and is hardly necessary. Lindberg, clad in a long trenchcoat and colour-coordinated eye-patch is grand, and this is certainly unique. Fun? No. It’s hardly even entertaining, and must have freaked out the drive-in crowd during its mid-70’s run. But memorable? Sure. And ripe for a remake starring Christina Ricci? Hell, yes.

Dir: Bo A. Vibenius
Star: Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf
a.k.a. They Call Her One-Eye + Hooker’s Revenge

Trapped, the Crimson Bat


Later that same year (1969), Oichi was back in action, and at the start of Trapped, seems quite content with her life as a bounty-huntress. She has even adopted an orphan, just as she herself was taken in herself, but two things wreck this relatively happy situation. She discovers her protege is really a runaway, not an orphan, and consequently has to abandon her – again, as she was discarded. Worse yet, she incurs the wrath of fellow bounty-huntress Oen (Matsuoka), a kitten with a whip and pockets full of venomous snakes, who leaves Oichi for dead. Luckily, she is nursed back to health by Matsuka (Irikawa), a farmer who doesn’t care about her shady past, and Oichi discovers the joys of a simpler existence – specifically, one not involving the slaughter of criminals for cash. Of course, the inevitable eventually happens: local thug Bunzo (Abe) starts taking the locals’ rice stocks, with Oen closely in tow. No prizes for guessing that the quiet life isn’t going to last long, especially after Matsuka is manipulated by Oen into owing a gambling debt to Bunzo.

This is a fine movie, with Matusoka in particular a grand foil for the heroine, her hair covering one half of her face like a veil, and the other half usually displaying a near-psychotic expression. Oichi’s struggles to leave her past behind feel almost like Shakespearean tragedy, and the final shots of the film, while a sudden way to end, hint strongly at an endless, futile struggle. To paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a Samurai sword slicing up an opponent…forever. Downbeat? Hell, yes. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

The action is decent too, with Matsuyama definitely operating a step above her first outing; although these aren’t usually so much fights, more the swift dispatch of one or more opponents, that’s par for the chambara genre. Matsuka is somewhat of an enigma as a character – it’s hard to see why Oichi falls for him, and the whole “orphan” plotline is not well handled. In particular, it’s lacking any kind of background, to the extent it feels like an entire film was missing. The rest of the story though, is well-crafted and packs a solid wallop; you could certainly argue that this is the best flight of the Crimson Bat.

Dir: Matsuda Teiki
Stars: Yoko Matsuyama, Yasunori Irikawa, Kikko Matsuoka, Toru Abe
a.k.a. Mekura No Oichi Monogatari: Jigoku Hada

The Twins Effect II


“Film with the trajectory of a ski race; starts off high, goes downhill fast.”

I liked, and enjoyed the original film, and at first, this seems to have a great chance at surpassing it. The opening fight between our two heroines, one (Choi) a slave-trader, the other (Chung) an enforcer for the Empress, is a masterpiece that combines wire-work, CGI and gimmickry – camerawork from Azumi and what looks like a mutant Klingon batleth – to fabulous (if not fully convincing) effect. All this in a mythical kingdom where women rule, and men are reduced to “dumbbells”, while the cast includes both Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. Even if the connection to the original is tenuous at best, the potential here doesn’t need to be specified.

However, it all goes horribly wrong. Our heroines team up with a pair of jackasses, appropriately named Blockhead (Chen) and Charcoal Head (the talentless Fong, present only because he’s Jackie Chan’s son), and their presence sucks the life from proceedings. One of them – but nobody knows which one – is the ‘Star of Rex’, a future ruler who can defeat the evil empress (Qu Ying) with the aid of the sword, Excalibur. No, really; it must have been on loan from Camelot. As you can imagine, the film proceeds to implode with spectacular speed, a downward spiral that only briefly flattens for a duel between Yen and Chan – the former playing a character called ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. Oh, hold my aching sides. Even the finale is largely mundane, though the use of an icicle as a weapon by the empress did get our attention.

On the plus side, both Twins put in surprisingly solid performances – Choi, in particular, is much less irritating than before, though remains outshone by Chung. However, they still aren’t enough on their own to sustain a movie, despite the parade of celebrity cameos, especially when co-stars Chen and Fong are woefully short of the mark. With a $10.2 million budget, I just wish they’d spent a few more dollars on the script and some decent actors. Then, it might have lived up to the marvellous first fifteen minutes.

Dir: Patrick Leung, Corey Yuen
Star: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Jaycee Fong, Wilson Chen Bo-Lin

Twins Effect


“Vampires using mobile phones, with TV screens in their coffins? What is the world coming to…”

For something crafted largely as a vehicle for its two female, pop-singing stars (the titular Twins), this is much better than you’d expect – compare, say, any Mary-Kate and Ashley film. Sure, it’s dumb. Sure, it’s loaded with cheesy romance and totally unnecessary celebrity cameos. But it also has more fun with the vampire genre than any movie since the original Buffy, and the action, directed by the hugely under-rated Donnie Yen, is far superior.

Vampire-hunter Reeve (Cheng) loses his partner (an impressive Josie Ho) to a newly-arrived evil Euro-vampire after a brutal battle in a railway station. Her replacement is Gypsy (Chung), who has idolized Reeve for years. But meanwhile sister Helen (Choi) meets and falls in love with Kazaf (Chen – yep, all four leads’ names begin with Ch. You can add a Jackie Chan cameo too), a good vampire who won’t suck blood from unwilling victims. The evil vamp need Kazaf’s essence in order to walk in daylight, and it’s up to…oh, everyone else, to stop him.

The action movies in fits and starts; a great opening battle, an amusing Gypsy/Helen spat over a teddy-bear early on, which shows where this movie’s tongue is; and an extended final duel with the pair as our last hope, and which gained the film our seal of approval. It’s clear neither girl is an experienced martial artist, but 95% of the time, you can easily overlook this; the ever-wonderful Anthony Wong, as Kazaf’s butler Prada, helps keep the film grounded and outweighs the fact that Helen is an immensely irritating character. To quote Lars Von Trier, “Take the good, with the evil”, and here the balance is firmly for the former.

Dir: Dante Lam
Star: Ekin Cheng, Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Edison Chen
a.k.a. The Vampire Effect

Two-Gun Lady


“An old-school Western delivers a very pleasant surprise.”

Trick-shot artist Kate Masters (Castle) comes to a remote town with her show, raising suspicions among locals, who suspect she’s more than she seems. They are led by Jud Ivers (McDonald) and his family, who rule the area with an iron grip. This 1955 B-movie (in the original sense – it’s only 71 minutes long) crams plenty in, with almost everyone having secrets, good or bad. Castle makes a fine heroine, exuding strength but ultimately vulnerable, and is matched by the rest of the cast. Particular credit to McDonald, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, in her movie debut as Jenny Ivers; both bring depth to what could be one-dimensional characters.

This certainly has predictable elements (the fate of Jenny’s lamb is inevitable), yet punches surprisingly above its weight, with exchanges such as the following, on the nature of frontier justice:
    “You the sheriff?
    “No. Just the law…”
It does drag in the middle, thanks to a tedious subplot involving a US Marshal (Talman) out to get the Ivers clan, which reached its nadir in a very dull horse chase. There’s also a very odd part where Marie Windsor walks into a scene she’s not involved in, and leaps back, visibly startled – how that take stayed in the film beats me. But the finale, pitting Masters against the fastest gun in town, is very nicely staged, and will likely bring animal lovers everywhere to their feet.

Most remarkably of all, our 18-year old son, more used to Buffy and Alias, sat and watched this b&w Western, made three decades before he was born. And we weren’t even in the room. Praise, indeed.

Dir: Richard Bartlett
Star: Peggy Castle, William Talman, Ian McDonald, Marie Windsor

Toughwoman World Championships


“Just like the real thing – every bit as corrupt and tacky as professional boxing!”

If you’re not familiar with the Toughman concept, a brief summary: two amateur fighters, box it out for three one-minute rounds. The short duration means tactics are largely reduced to whaling away big-time, which makes a version of the sport suitable for the post-MTV generation. This pay-per-view special was a knockout tournament, with 16 female entrants from across the U.S…which naturally had me carping about the “world” in the title (clearly from the same parochial mind-set as “world series”).

Credit where credit is due, and that must go to the participants, who (mostly) carried themselves with a fair bit of dignity and grace; you could only admire their heart, tenacity and grit. It was gratifying to see that participants hadn’t been chosen on the basis of looks, though I do have to say that no-one weighing 275 lbs really deserves the nickname ‘Pretty Woman’. But that’s just my opinion, and I certainly wouldn’t argue the point with her. :-)

I said “mostly”; the sole exception was Leah Stuker, an arrogant ex-stripper. She didn’t even deserve to win her first-round bout – okay, one bad judging decision can be excused. She also got the decision in her next two bouts – let’s be charitable, and say they were close enough to be arguable. But in the final, against veteran Becki Levy (above, right), she barely landed a punch…and still triumphed. Perhaps her arrogance was because she knew all along she was going to win, providing she remained conscious. I wouldn’t have minded it being staged if, like the WWF, the other contestants had been in on it. They obviously weren’t, and were giving their all in the cause of a sham. Levy, Nicky Eplion, Cassandra Gieggar, even Paula ‘Pretty Woman’ Soap – they all deserved victory more than Stuker. I note with interest that Stuker had been the poster-girl on the Toughwoman site since before the contest took place. Just a coincidence, nothing to worry about…

It didn’t help that in-ring announcer (and Toughman owner) Art Dore and corner-interviewer Jimmy Smith both left trails of slime behind them in their interactions with the contestants. Outside, things were slightly better: Larry Michael was informative and non-patronising, but then, sitting next to Christie Martin would keep anyone in check. To Martin’s credit, she seemed to be seriously biting her tongue about the final result – I would personally have been delighted to pay a further $19.95, and see her give Stuker the serious kicking she deserved. It all left a bad, bad taste in the mouth, and pretty much guarantees I won’t buy any more of their PPV’s. Hey, if I want to see pre-arranged fights, Wrestlemania’s coming up…

From Leah ‘the Katz’ Stuker, 2nd May 2004
This is 2002 Toughwoman World Champion Leah Stuker – I was told how your site dogged me out. Well, why don’t you see it from my point of view. Yes, I had won and was very surprised that I won, until I watched the video after I got home. Then I saw how it was possible: if Becky deserved that fight, then she should have been doing some hitting, because the whole time, all she was trying to do was sit on me.

What’s really shitty is, I went in there to fight and win just like everyone else, and I had no-one sponsoring me, no-one training me, no-one but my family to back me. Then they decide to give me the name ‘stripper’ – something I did ten years before this, and the only reason they knew about that is because one of the corner men had seen me working a month before a fight I won in Montana. So all my family and friends got to see my name rubbed in the mud on national TV. I got 50 questions about that from my Dad, thanks to that asshole Art. If you read anything, my name was Leah ‘the Katz’ Stuker, not ‘the stripper’.

Needless to say everything I learned, I learned from the streets, books or even watching some TV bouts. How many girls can say they went in there with no formal training and no boxing coach whatsoever – just heart and strength! As for the pix on their website, I was told to get some done, because all the girls fighting were getting them posted on the site. I got some done, but they didn’t like the ones I sent – and since they paid the photographer, they picked which ones they liked.

If I knew I was going to win this thing, I sure would have gotten a lot less bruises and asked for a little more money, because 4 fights in 2 hours is not what I wanted to do. And if I was their “poster child” how come I never heard from Toughman or Art Dore ever again after this bout? Why did I get paid and never get any thing after this point, including this pro contract that I was supposed to get? Not one person from Toughman said they would ever have me go pro.

Since you were so sure I was on their side and so sure this fight was staged, then come to my house and tell my kids the 4 to 6 hours in the gym a day were for nothing; the learning I did on my own was for nothing; everything I did was for nothing. Leaving them for almost a week was for nothing since I am a very devoted mother and leaving them was the hardest thing I ever had to do!! Tell them that: because even if you assholes don’t think I deserved it, my boys think I am their biggest hero.

I cross a bunch of hurdles everyday and never look back to see if I knocked any down, only ahead to make sure the path is still there. Here’s to all who think I didn’t win – I won fair and square, have got the money, trophy and jacket to prove it, and am now back to being a single mother raising her boys on her own.

[With hindsight, it looks as if we were harsh on The Katz – though we still don’t feel she deserved to win, and suspect the organizers decided the winner beforehand (likely based on factors outside the ring), it seems that Stuker was trying every bit as hard as any other competitor and was an innocent victim – we apologise for suggesting otherwise. It sounds like she got screwed over too, and deserves sympathy for the treatment she received. Besides, any woman bringing up kids on their own is a heroine every single day…

Tokyo Blue: Case 1


“Cops and robbers, Japanese style, with much T&A.”

You know where you stand with this film inside five minutes, from the moment policewoman heroine Mika Hino (Shiratori) is made to strip off by bad guys hunting for a key – which she naturally is keeping in her lingerie. Mind you, this pales in comparison with where partner Rin Kakura (Kuribayashi) hides her gun… The problem with this tape is that such intimate details are far more interesting than the plot, a tired and severely uninteresting search for a master counterfeiter.

While there’s no denying the charms of the leading ladies, most of the time they’re displayed with precious little imagination, and their characters are far less appealing than their bodies. It’s also very hard to disapprove of the lecherous colleagues depicted by the movie, when the film is at almost the same mental level. Only in the last fifteen minutes, as Mika strives to rescue the captured Rin from an all-girl team of guards, do things start to perk up, with Mika becoming something of an avenging angel, slaughtering receptionists with effective skill and disturbing delight. Unfortunately, this only really goes to show up the first hour of this film, actually the third in the Metropolitan Police Branch 82 series, for the tedious waste of time it is. Best line in the enthusiastic but futile dub: “I’m a blueberry tart!”

[This review originally appeared in Manga Max]

Dir: Younosuke Koike
Star: Chieko Shiratori, Tomomi Kuribayashi, Keiji Matsuda, Hitomi Shimizu



“Hell hath no fury like a mother separated from her daughter.”

Karen and Will Jennings have an idyllic life – money, a really nice house and Abby, the sort of six-year old daughter only ever seen in Hollywood films. That is, it’s idyllic until Joe Hickey (Bacon) and his family enter, kidnapping Abby for ransom, just after Will has left for a conference. Their scheme of terror has proven effective several times before, and the Jennings have just 24 hours to save their daughter.

This film is a contrast between the Jennings and the Hickeys, and in particular Karen Jennings (Theron) and Cheryl Hickey (Love), who are polar opposites in looks, lifestyle and background, but share a fierce dedication to their families – especially, their daughters. Both are prepared to go to any extreme, even violence, to right what they perceive as an injustice [if the preceding sentence sounds awkward, it’s because I’m waltzing around a spoiler!], and I defy you to watch the scalpel scene without a twitch.

Karen has to handle the ever-dangerous Joe, while Will (Stuart Townsend) is kept occupied by Cheryl, and Joe’s cousin (Pruitt) looks after Abby, who turns out to be severely asthmatic. The cutting back in forth is designed, partly to increase tension – it does – but perhaps more importantly, cover some dodgy plot elements. As with all kidnappings, how do the criminals expect to collect the ransom? This is never made quite clear, and as the film goes on, it unravels to a frankly implausible finale involving a light aircraft, a logging truck and a mile of busy highway.

Which is a shame, since the actors involved are good, even if none of the roles are much of a stretch: Courtney Love playing a white trash slut doesn’t exactly show imagination in the casting department. Still, if you want a Discovery channel documentary about a mother bear defending its cub, in human form, this is effective. I just wish they’d developed that side more, and the usual thriller aspects less. Hell, who wouldn’t want to see Theron in a 2 Days in the Valley-style catfight with Love? :-)

Dir: Luis Mandoki
Star: Charlize Theron, Kevin Bacon, Courtney Love, Pruitt Taylor Vince

The Touch


“Opens brightly, peters out into sub-Indiana Jones heroics, with some awful use of CGI.”

Yeoh’s English-language follow-up to Crouching Tiger was highly anticipated, but the end result is a disappointment. Yeoh plays Yin, the head of a family of acrobats who guard part of the key to a Sharira – a holy relic with potential for good or evil. The latter is supplied by Carl (Roxburgh), who hires Yin’s former boyfriend Eric (Chaplin) to steal the other elements needed to get the Sharira. Eric, however, switches sides, and teams up with Yin to race Carl to the prize.

It starts well: Carl has an excellent line in sarcasm, and his army of bungling henchmen provide plenty of ways to use it. And while the action scenes use an annoying ‘drop-frame’ technique, they are at least frequent. Once Yin and Eric hit the road, however, it grows steadily less interesting, among much “without good, there can be no evil” banal chatter. Yin’s kid brother (Chang), kidnapped by Carl, also becomes irritating, and it’s clear that Pau’s talents lie in cinematography (as in CTHD), not direction.

Worst of all, given a $20m budget, you’d think the climax would be more than extremely lame CGI, barely worthy of a Playstation game. Yeoh is her own best special effect, and the finale gives her little or no chance to shine. I suspect she’d have been better off taking a part in the Matrix sequels, which she turned down in order to make this mediocre action-adventure entry. Little wonder Miramax pushed the US release back to Spring 2004 – almost two years after the HK release. Do not be surprised if it quietly gets dumped to video.

Dir: Peter Pau
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Ben Chaplin, Richard Roxburgh, Brandon Chang