Fatal Conflict

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“Die Hard in space – no ifs or ands, though plenty of butts…”

Wuhrer plays Sasha, a space pilot coerced into attempting to stop a rocket, hijacked by evil emerald dealer Conrad Nash (Rossi) and his creepily incestuous sister Carla (Rubin), from ploughing into LA. The proper pilot (O’Keefe) provides assistance, with much running around corridors and plunging into a glycerine tank. Yes, glycerine: a feeble excuse to give our heroine the wettest T-shirt of all time. Between this and the “ass panning” (as Chris described Simandl’s fondness for shooting at waist level), it seems disturbingly fetishistic, though a large chunk is due to footage spliced in from another movie – see Jolly Roper’s review for full details. Hack out all that stuff, and you’ve got a serviceable little movie in the Die Hard vein, with the cast doing surprisingly well. Wuhrer, Rossi and Rubin are all interesting to watch, and are entirely responsible for this being half-decent.

Well, I thought it wasn’t bad – Chris, in her regular role as voice of sanity, pointed out several gaping plot holes. Not least, when Sasha gets the drop on the villain, she doesn’t simply kill him, but embarks on a convoluted plot to con him into believing she’s an escaped prisoner. This was perhaps to justify earlier jail footage, large chunks of which also look suspiciously like they came from somewhere else. If I’d watched these other movies, I’d probably feel significantly more cheated – as is, it gets the benefit of first sight and so proves an acceptable time passer. If all else fails, start the drinking game where you take a swig for every gratuitous buttock shot. Unconsciousness will soon be upon you.

Dir: Lloyd Simandl
Star: Kari Wuhrer, Leo Rossi, Miles O’Keefe, Jennifer Rubin

Outside the Law

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“A reminder of the inalienable rule of Rothrock films: the US ones suck.”

This is the first Cyn-flick seen in a while: rumour has it, she made a brief diversion (after implants) into erotic thrillers, but the good news is, she’s back in the martial arts arena. The bad news is, er, the film. It starts with her DEA colleague, about to bust a Colombian drug-lord, promising Julie (Rothrock), “Four kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence.” You know he’s dead, though given his willful lack of a bullet-proof vest, he also has a death-wish.

Before dying, he hands her evidence on the sale of US-government supplied equipment to the cartel, making Julie a target. Returning to Florida (how, exactly?), she goes on the run, with a dog, a truck and a sense of justice. Eating in a restaurant, she breaks up a fight, and gets fully involved when the woman running the joint is murdered by a guy connected to (tah-rah!) Colombian drug-dealers.

All of which might not be so bad; you watch this kind of film for action, not plot. But the director has no idea how to shoot fights, and the results are so poor as to make it look as if Rothrock has been replaced by a stunt double in a bad wig – oh, sorry, that’s her hair. The results are a pale imitation of her work in Hong Kong, and are even less interesting than the likes of China O’Brien. If she is, as the sleeve claims, “the queen of martial arts”, a popular coup must surely be imminent.

Dir: Jorge Montesi
Star: Cynthia Rothrock, Jeff Wincott, Seamus Dever, Dan Lauria

Supreme Sanction

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Alias kicks back with a martini and some valium.”

Director Terlesky starred in one of my favourite guilty pleasures, Deathstalker II, but this shows he still has much to learn about directing and, particularly, scripting. There just isn’t enough going on here to sustain attention, with too many scenes taking twice as long as necessary. Swanson plays Jenna, assassin for a government counter-terrorist agency which is now creating incidents in order to get increased funding. She switches sides and protects TV journalist Jordan McNamara (Dukes), whom she has been ordered to kill – her handler Dalton (Madsen) must now take her out.

Subsequent events have given this 1999 film a creepily prescient air, and I’m always up for a good conspiracy. But neither Swanson nor Madsen ever provide the necessary energy, which we know the latter at least can deliver (though he gets the best moment, shooting the journalist, then offering him a BandAid). Faison makes a mark as Marcus, Jenna’s gadget man who avoids the usual stereotypes, but Dukes is so irritatingly whiny, it’s hard to see why Jenna chose to save him.

There are moments proving the ideas have potential, such as Jenna and Marcus disguising themselves to penetrate the enemies’ base. More of this invention would have helped enliven what is instead just marginally acceptable entertainment. The climax also relies on chief villain Ron Perlman willingly confessing all to his “helpless” captive. Guess he must never have seen any Bond films.

Dir: John Terlesky
Star: Kristy Swanson, Michael Madsen, David Dukes, Donald Adeosun Faison

Retroactive

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“Trippy time-travel done with almost enough energy to cover the plot holes.”

It’s not often I criticise a film for too much explanation, but Retroactive might have been better off with more hand-waving. I’ll explain later; first, the plot. Travis plays Karen, a police negotiator who just screwed up badly; driving down South she ends up hitching a ride with Frank (Belushi) and his abused wife Rayanne (Whirry). Frank is a psycho, and Karen ends up sheltering in a secret lab where time-travel experiments are going on – she ends up with another chance to deal with Frank, only to discover this second attempt may not be an improvement…

This is a nifty little sleeper that seemed to get buried when Orion Pictures went belly-up. It deserved a better fate, with everyone turning in sterling performances, even if Karen’s reaction to being shot back in time is too calm and understated! Belushi makes a fine, creepy redneck, a sense of tension springing from your feeling he is capable of anything at any time. The deviations with each attempt are marked and cleverly written, and the ending is satisfactorily imperfect.

Our qualms were largely because, unlike Run Lola Run or Groundhog Day, which made no attempt to explain what was happening, here there’s just enough logic to be unsatisfying. The “rules” are clearly important – for example, do time-travellers keep their memories? – yet are inadequately laid out. We spent the last 15 minutes with furrowed brows, trying to see if it made sense. It may, or may not, but either way was an unwelcome diversion in an otherwise pleasant surprise.

Dir: Louis Morneau
Star: Kylie Travis, Jim Belushi, Shannon Whirry, Frank Whaley

Bandidas

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“How the West was Wo(ma)n…”

Let us make no mistake about this, this is a frothy confection of a film, which is not intended to be taken seriously; to do so, would be a serious mistake. The closest parallel here is probably to think of it as a distaff version of Shanghai Noon, with an odd couple teaming up for fun ‘n’ frolics in the Old West. Robber baron Tyler Jackson (Yoakam) comes to Mexico to take away land from the locals so a railroad can be built. In the process, he kills the fathers of both farm-girl Maria (Cruz) and rich-girl Sara (Salma), so he can take their property and bank respectively. To get revenge, each lady independently decides to rob the same bank at the same time, and are forced to team-up; their widely-disparate characters initially cause friction, but they eventally come to respect each other, after being trained by retired robber Bill Buck (Sam Shephard).

When they start their campaign, Jackson brings in a specialist in the new ‘scientific method’ of criminal investigation, Quentin (Zahn), to help track down the bandidas. However, after discovering Sara’s father was poisoned, heis convinced by the pair that he is actually working for the wrong side, and comes across to join them. The latest security measures are defeated – with the aid of a pair of ice-skates! – and as a result a train is loaded with the Mexican government’s gold reserve, to ship it to safety in Mexico. The bandidas resolve to take the cargo, but Jackson and his gang are waiting for them…as is Quentin’s fiancée…

This was co-written by Luc Besson: he is the engine-room of European cinema, listed as a producer of no less than 60 titles over the past five years on the IMDB. He likely deserves a place in the Girls With Guns hall of fame, having directed Nikita and The Messenger, given Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman their action-debuts in The Fifth Element and Leon respectively, worked as an uncredited co-producer on Haute Tension, and now delivers this. It came up in response to a request from the two leads, who’ve wanted to work together for a long time, and he handed the script to two Norwegians, making their feature debut [but with a lot of commercial experience].

However, there’s no doubt that it’s the leading ladies who make this one click, right from the first scene together, where Sara confronts Maria, who has snuck in to the house to argue with Sara’s father about the ongoing land-grab. The bickering between the two, which continues, in an increasingly friendly way, through the entire film. Maria snipes at Sara because the latter can’t fire a gun to save her life – in a beautiful touch, she gets terrible hiccups when she tries; Sara taunts Maria for her lack of education.

The two also argue over who is the best kisser, notably in a scene where they are dressed as Paris showgirls, and are trying to extract information from Quentin, who is tied to the bed. And Steve Zaun was actually paid to take part? ;-) That’s about as far as the film goes, sexually speaking; much cleavage, but no actual nudity. A fondness for the heroines splashing around in water, especially early on, and the above-mentioned comedic seduction scene, is about as close as we get to exploitation. That news may disappoint some readers, but it really wouldn’t be in keeping with the overall tone of the movie, which is light-hearted and firmly PG-13 rated, despite lesbian scuttlebutt which circulated afte a press conference where Penelope (gasp!) touched Salma’s butt.

What did disappoint me was the action. I expected more from Besson, who helped give us such gems as The Transporter and District B-13, as well as the titles mentioned above, though a couple of moments stand out. There’s a bravura slow-motion scene in the final battle – bullets, knives, bodies and debris fly in a single shot, the camera panning back and forth to capture the carnage. But, the most amazing part is seeing a horse, with a rider on its back, climb a ladder. This was apparently a combination of training (the horse, with a stunt rider, walked up a specially-made set of stairs) and CGI work by Parisian FX house Macguff, to replace the stairs with a ladder, add dust and bounce, etc. It’s a throwaway moment, in a throwaway film, but is worthy of note, and applause.

That may be perhaps down to the leads’ lack of experience: Cruz’s only real brush with the action genre was Sahara, Hayek has more background (working with Robert Rodriguez helps there), but neither of them would appear to be looking to make a name for themselves with their work here. A sequel is hinted at by the ending; however, that this $30m production went all but straight to video in the US and notched only $18m overseas would seem to rule this out. One wonders why, for a film set in Mexico and with two Hispanic leads, why they didn’t speak Spanish; one assumes Besson, with his eye on the international market, went for the more commercial English, even though Cruz seems slightly ill-at-ease thee.

These qualms are relatively minor, and if not the all-out action fest I was hoping for, it’s certainly among the best Westernettes of recent years. This is not a genre which has been kind to action heroines in the past, including such bombs – justifiable or not – as Bad Girls and The Quick and the Dead, as well as less high-profile turkeys as Gang of Roses. Bandidas is nowhere in the same league, and if survives almost entirely on the charisma and energy of Cruz and Hayek, that’s by itself is something which most movies would like to have. If you can certainly argue that to some extent this is a vanity project, here, I’d be very hard pushed to call vanity a sin.

Dir: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam

The Arena (2001)

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arena2001A remake of the 1974 film of the same name, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, it’s a case of “good news, bad news”; some of the changes are improvements, while others are perhaps not as well thought-out. Firstly, McDougal and Dergan fall some way short of Grier and Markov – while I may have criticised their fighting abilities, at least they both had more than adequate screen presence. McDougal and Dergan are, first and foremost, Playboy playmates, and were clearly employed for this reason, rather than any acting ability. Though, as in the original, the quantity of skin on view is actually pretty limited – this is even more surprising, given our heroines’ background.

Bekmambetov’s directorial style is very stylish and flashy, probably too much so; you’ll frequently find yourself wishing he would keep the camera still and pointing in one direction, as well as laying off on the whizzy optical effects. There are moments when it does work, but particularly in the arena battles, it looks as if they are trying to distract the viewer from inadequacies that would otherwise be painfully obvious.

On the plus side, tweaks to the story-line have probably been for the better. The setting is moved to a far outpost of the Empire, which renders the final revolt much more plausible. The focus of the film is also shifted, with more emphasis being given to the doomed romance between slave-trainer Septimus and one of his gladiatorettes. This did exist in the 70’s version, but was really more of a sideplot; here, it gets boosted and is actually quite effective, not least because the actor playing Septimus (Mambetov) has an amazing face, full of character. The climax now sees local governor Timarchus pitted against his own gladiators, obviously inspired by Russell Crowe and Joaquim Phoenix’s duel.

The Russian locations, mainly near St. Petersburg, work well for the most part; the central arena is dropped in the middle of a blasted forest, leaving it looking like a crashed spaceship. Actually, that’s perhaps the point, in that the Romans were, to the locals, an alien race with gladiatorial combat and other bizarre customs. But by most accounts, conditions on the shoot were pretty basic – Karen Macdougal’s comments on the DVD are especially revealing here, not least where she says she never wants to go back to the country! Apart from the two heroines, the rest of the cast (including the wonderfully-named Severina Kamugisha Kemirimbe) are local, and consequently their performances are dubbed, not badly, but one suspects towards mediocrity.

Overall, this remake isn’t a disaster, and stands on its own without too much difficulty. The problem is, that if you’ve seen the original, the new one doesn’t bring all that much to the party, save for some hyperactive camerawork. We can’t really blame Macdougal and Durgan – they received precisely four hours training for their swordfighting – but you can only wonder how much of the film’s obvious potential might have been realised, if Corman had hired actresses with actual combat skills.

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Viktor Verzbitsky, Anatoly Mambetov

The Arena (1974)

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arenaThe tagline for this was “Black slave, white slave”, a less than subtle nod to the fact that it reunited Grier and Markov, the star of Corman’s jailbreak movie from the previous year, Black Mama, White Mama. The similarities of this film to it are obvious: two women from opposing backgrounds forced, through adversity, to unite, respect eventually growing between…etc, etc. Hell, there’s even a shower-scene – although since this dates back to pre-shower days, it should strictly be called a bucket-of-cold-water scene.

Here, Grier and Markov play Mamawi and Bodicia respectively, slaves captured and put to work in a provincial gladiatorial arena – at first working the concessions (or Roman equivalent thereof), but when the owner discovers the appeal of women fighting, he sends them into the arena. They eventually rebel against the authorities, and help each other in an escape attempt that puts their lives at risk.

Not quite as ludicrously anachronous as it sounds – there actually were female gladiators – the small budget is helped immeasurably by shooting in Cinecitta, Italy’s main studio, which no doubt provided sets, costumes and props. There is a good feel for the callous barbarity of the time, which contrasts well with a touching love story between the trainer and one of the slaves. Once you get beyond the shower scene, it’s surprisingly restrained – while there’s no shortage of nudity, it is less gratuitous that you might expect.

The leading actresses are both good in their roles, but their fighting skills leave too much to be desired. It’s difficult to see how they could have won over the crowd to their side, as is required by the plot. Once they escape the arena, things do perk up a little on this front, but it remains not a movie to recommend for action. This is not least because, while it was shot in ‘Scope, even the DVD is pan-and-scanned. It’s thus rare that you get to see both participants on the screen at the same time.

Despite this, it’s rarely boring and never unwatchable, with decent production values and everyone putting in sufficient effort to make it worthwhile. Can’t help wondering if Sid Lawrence’s fey Roman Priscium, had some kind of influence on Joaquim Phoenix’s performance in Gladiator. Certainly, this film was among the final twitches of the sword-and-sandal genre, which would go into hibernation, to await rejuvenation courtesy of Ridley Scott.

Reports suggest director Carver was largely helped out by Joe D’Amato, who’d go on to make both video-nasties and porno films. Perhaps the most famous name involved, however, is editor Joe (Gremlins) Dante, another one of Roger Corman’s alumni. Pam Grier, of course, would become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, but let’s not hold that against her. Markov, on the other hand, would make only one more movie, the barely known There Is No 13.

Dir: Steve Carver
Star: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller

Alien vs. Predator

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“Slime of your life.”

Initially inspired by a throwaway joke in Predator 2 – an alien skull in the Predator’s trophy cabinet – this has been some time in the making. Seven years have passed since the last entry in the Alien franchise, and fourteen since P2. Comics and video games have beaten the movie to the screen, and if truth be told, this film bears more resemblance to them than anything else. This is no surprise, given director Anderson helmed both Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Interestingly, it takes place pre-Alien, in the present day. A pyramid is discovered deep under the ice on an island near Antarctica; industrialist Charles Weyland (Henriksen) puts together a team to investigate, led by Alexa (Lathan), the kind of lady who free-climbs ice-walls for kicks. They soon find that the pyramid is a training compound where, every 100 years, the Predators come to hunt aliens, with humans hosts for the acid-blooded critters

It’s a totally ludicrous concept. The Alien life-cycle, from hatching, through infection and chest-bursting, to full-sized monsterhood, is now ridiculously fast. In an idea lifted from Cube, the pyramid floor-plan changes configuration precisely every ten minutes – even though the “minute” wasn’t invented (by the Babylonians, fact fans) when this supposedly “first pyramid” was built. And expending such effort on a stadium used a couple of hours per century is wildly implausible.

There’s never any doubt who the stars are here, and it’s not the humans, who engage in such cliched behavious as showing photos of their kids – which, as we all know, is a death sentence in this kind of film. In addition, they persist in using hand-held flares when they possess perfectly good flashlights, for no reason other than to create spooky shadows. Alexa’s bilingual sidekick Sebastian (Bova) is intensely irritating in both English and Italian, but fortunately the heroine herself makes a decent impression, improving as the film goes on in much the same way as Ripley did in the original. Of course, Lathan is not Sigourney Weaver – but neither was Weaver when she started. [Er, if you see what I mean…]

The film steps up towards the end, finally delivering what we all came to see: full-on, three-way carnage, climaxing in Alexa + Predator vs. the Alien Queen. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was cool, and the thought crossed my mind: with two of the three combatants being female, is the Predator perhaps one too? If so, this would probably be the ultimate in brawlin’ broads. However, the best moment is actually a flashback to an earlier cycle, with the Predators atop a pyramid, up which thousands of Aliens are swarming. It makes you wish they’d dropped us altogether and just let the titular twosome go at it, head-on.

There are a couple of nice nods to the inspirations, such as Lance Henriksen’s presence in the cast, albeit not playing an android this time. Alexa at one point almost echoes Arnie’s line, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!”, though doesn’t get to complete it, thanks to the film’s PG-13 rating. It’s hard to deny the toning-down this requires hampers the production, limiting the amount of violence that can be done (to the humans, at least – on both Alien and Predator planets, this would likely still be rated R). The effects are mostly adequate to well-done, though Anderson’s style is to cut fast rather than linger so we could give them any scrutiny.

The end result is a disappointment that works better as a high concept than on the screen. Part of the problem is that we’re never given any reason to root for anyone, from anywhere in the universe. The Aliens are the villains, who must be contained at any cost – fair enough. However, the Predators are equally opaque, and most of the human characters are a far cry from, say, Aliens‘ marine corps. Sure, they were sterotypes, but they proved you could quickly create endearing and memorable characters with well-chosen dialogue. In contrast, there are few memorable lines to be found here. Indeed, few moments will stick in your mind at all – and when they do, you may find yourself wishing they had slid right on past, such as the moment where a facehugger suddenly enters The Matrix. Hey, now there’s an idea for a crossover: Neo and Trinity take on the extra-terrestrials. Quick, where’s my typewriter?

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewan Bremner

Cutthroat Island

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“Rated Arrrrrrr…”

It seems to me that Cutthroat Island was largely just ahead of its time. Made in 1995, it shares a lot of the same elements as the wildly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean, which also had two gangs of pirates, feuding over treasure, while the British navy runs interference. Hell, there’s even an annoying pet monkey in both movies. But Cutthroat was such a big disaster at the box-office, it sat in the Guinness Book of Records, until subsequently passed by the likes of Gigli, and helped bankrupt Carolco.

Certainly, with an estimated $92m budget and a US gross of only $10m, it was a disaster movie, in the most literal sense of the word. But, truth be told, it’s not that bad: in the IMDB it rates a 5.4, which is respectable enough, and there’s no denying that, unlike many such films, the money is actually obvious on the screen. For this was made in the days before large-scale CGI, when the only way to have pirate ships battling on the high seas was…well, actually to have pirate ships battling on the high seas. Malta and Thailand stood in for the Atlantic, Davis mostly does her own stunts, and the finale features one of the best explosions captured on celluloid.

The plot is patterned after classic Errol Flynn films like The Sea Hawk, with Davis in the Flynn role as Morgan Adams, who inherits a ship after her father is killed by her evil uncle, Dawg (Langella). She also has part of a treasure-map – Dawg has another chunk, with the final portion owned by a third brother. The film is largely concerned by the various parties trying to acquire all the parts of the map, race to the treasure, avoid the British navy, and escape with the loot. There’s also a romantic subplot involving career thief William Shaw (Modine), needed to translate the map, but he and Morgan don’t have much chemistry. That’s perhaps because Davis was, at the time, married to director Harlin, and it’s certainly notable that every other woman in the film looks like she’s been keel-hauled beside the impeccably-styled Davis.

cutthroat1[The plan at first was to have Michael Douglas as the male lead – at a price of $15m – but he supposedly withdrew when his role was shrunk to make Davis the lead. Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise got the same offer, but declined. The producers then worked their way down the food chain, through Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins, before getting Modine for $4m. It’s interesting to speculate about how the film might have ended up with any of the other names – I mean, Charlie Sheen in a pirate film? On the other hand, a lot of people thought Johnny Depp, and letting him channel Keith Richards, was a bad idea…]

What the movie lacks in love interest, it more than makes up for in action – particularly, things going BOOM. This was set in an era when men were men, but women were men too, and everything was apparently likely to explode in a monstrous fireball at a moment’s notice. The opening sequence sees Morgan being recognised as a pirate, and chased by the British through Port Au Prince, a sequence which contains enough action for the climax of most films, not least when the navy decides to open fire from off-shore. The highlight has Davis rolling out a window, off a roof and onto a moving carriage, a serious “How the hell did they do that?” moment [the answer is, it’s a composite shot, joining one of her falling from the roof, to one of her pretending to have landed on the coach].

You will probably spend much of the film wondering how the film is going to top that, not least because the middle-part of the movie is not exactly enthralling. I mean, we know everyone is going to Cutthroat Island, so could they possibly hurry up and get there already? I’m also unimpressed by Chaykin as a journalist, embedded with Morgan, who is supposed to be writing up the activities of the pirates for his publisher. Not sure quite what his purpose was, and in a film that already runs over two hours, reckon he could have been removed without issue. It would also be fair to say that the plot, in general, is no more than a string of cliches, and the characters are similarly over-familiar, a disappointment given the transgressive concept at the film’s heart.

But it is a pirate movie and, to quote Roger Ebert, “is everything a movie named Cutthroat Island should be, and no more.” The final battle, where everyone collides in the middle of the ocean, is a great action set-piece, and Morgan duels her way with Dawg everywhere from the crow’s nest to the hold. Though I do feel his final dispatch (it hardly counts as a spoiler – I stress once more, this is a pirate movie) is, again, a slight shame, with the heroine forced to pull out the, ah, big guns to deal with him, rather than using her own skill.

Still, an entertaining effort, which truly deserves to be seen on a big screen with a good sound-system, and is an interesting precursor to The Long Kiss Goodnight, made by Harlin and Davis shortly after, which also tanked. In light of the subsequent success of Caribbean (and its imminent sequels), the time seems right for a re-evaluation, and I note that most of the recent IMDB comments have been warmly enthusiastic towards the movie. While the chances for the obvious sequel likely evaporated with the couple’s messy divorce – she filed in 1997, the month his personal assistant gave birth to his son – it certainly deserves to be freed from Davy Jones’ Locker of Hollywood Failure.

Dir: Renny Harlin
Star: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin

Catwoman

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“Paws for concern…”

I entered the theatre with mixed feelings. This is, easily, the biggest action heroine film of the summer, and I want it to make a ton of money, so we’ll get more of them. On the other hand, it starred Halle Berry, whom I’ve loathed with intensity ever since she played the race card in her Oscar speech (and hell, our daughter is darker than Berry!). Her hideous performance as a Bond girl deepened this hatred, so the news that she would be Catwoman was a severe blow. But, hey, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, how bad could it be?

  • “This plodding, by-the-numbers superhero flick has all the feline grace of a walleyed mastiff.” – Mark Holcomb, Village Voice

  • “Plays like a Lifetime movie on estrogen overdose, barely held together by a script that should have been tossed out with the kitty litter.” – David Rooney, Variety

  • “The stench of the litter pan is all over this big-screen $90 million disaster-in-waiting.” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

  • “The Showgirls of superhero movies.” – Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune

Ah. That bad? Actually, I’m one of the very few people who genuinely likes Showgirls, figuring that Paul Verhoeven’s film does a brilliant job of capturing the sleazy, tawdry spirit of Las Vegas. However, even I know that when reviewers invoke its name, it’s never as a recommendation. When you go to a theatre in our area’s main mall, the first week of release, and there are nine people at an evening show…you know this is a disaster movie, at least in terms of studio returns. It’s no wonder, for this is pedestrian and unaffecting despite – or perhaps, because of – director Pitof’s desperate flailing around in an effort to make things interesting.

 The story is pretty basic: Patience Phillips (Berry) works for a cosmetic company, under husband and wife sleazebags, Mr + Mrs Hedare (Wilson + Stone). While creeping around the factory, aided by remarkably lax security, she finds out that their face cream has rather unpleasant side-effects – but they’re going to release it onto the market anyway. Startled by this discovery, she bumps into something conveniently noise-making: all of a sudden, security is not so lax. Flushed out a waste pipe, and left for dead, she gets new life when a mysterious cat breaths on her, and Patience turns into…Catwoman.

Now, she has not only to expose her former employer’s evil scheme, but keep investigating cop Tom Lone (Bratt) away from knowing her secret, while still finding time for coffee, dinner, and occasional romps with him. Not to mention a game of one-on-one basketball, which must go down as one of the most superfluous scenes ever; Lone’s lack of reaction to her superhuman prowess leaves me wondering how the hell he ever became a detective.

In the right hands, this storyline might have been fun, if played like the 60’s TV series – for camp value. Stone occasionally seems to be trying for this, but Berry is intent on trying to make us take the whole thing seriously, an endeavour that’s doomed to fail. Logic goes out the window pretty much about the same time Patience does – only it doesn’t get rescued: apparently, cat-induced skills include not only agility, but also the hotwiring and riding of motorbikes. And why, exactly, does she decide to cut her leather suit into something more befitting a two-bit dominatrix?

It’s almost as if, every time there’s a spark of intelligence or wit, a committee insisted it be removed. For example, at one point, Catwoman goes into a bar (which, appropriately enough, sounds like the start of a bad joke…), and asks for a “White Russian, no ice, no vodka…hold the Kahlua.” That’s kinda cute: until the barman responds with, “Cream – straight up,” just in case we’re total imbeciles who didn’t grasp the concept.

I could forgive that too, if the action had been at least competent. Instead, we get a mix of obvious doubling (most accounts say it was by a man, adding insult to injury!), and extremely poor CGI, both of which are shot as if Pitof was being paid by the number of edits. At best, it reaches the level of a mediocre video game, without any significant emotional or intellectual impact – the “Wow!” factor is entirely missing.

On the plus side, this clearly wasn’t a cheap movie, and it does put its budget on the screen – save the aforementioned CGI. Stone has fun with her role; she may even be getting a subtle dig in at Hollywood, when her character talks about being thrown on the scrapheap at 40. [Though in her case, it seems to have been less to do with her age than, by certain reports, being a bitch to work with in her superstar years…] And Pitof does have a sense of visual flair, even if the result is mostly to irritate. The movie also appears to be in focus, and the lip movements match the dialogue quite well. Can you tell I am stretching here?

It is, on the whole, about the bottom of what I expected or hoped. I didn’t fall asleep, but this was the epitome of lowest common denominator Hollywood film-making, with everything ground down to the mediocre, and possessing not even momentary impact. It doesn’t bode well for the upcoming Batman movie, and its failure will do absolutely nothing to promote the cause of big-budget action heroine films. However, if this is what we get in that field, that will be no real loss.

[February 2005: Berry took worst actress for her performance at the 25th annual Razzies, at which Catwoman also took worst film, director and screenplay. However, I do have to give Berry much credit for turning up to accept her award in person, saying: “When I was a kid, my mother told me that if you could not be a good loser, then there’s no way you could be a good winner.” My opinion of Ms. Berry just went up quite a few notches.]

Feedback

Brian S: “Came across your site a few days ago and thought I would drop you a line to say how much I enjoy it. I love this sort of movie and it makes a change to be able to read a review from somebody with similar tastes. I get really sick of these critics who only seem to like drama and think that all movies should have some deep meaning attached to them to be considered any good. I especially liked the review on Catwoman which I had seen the day before, and found myself agreeing with many of the points raised. I’ve got a few more points I think will interest you. It has only just been released here in New Zealand, and with its poor box office, I don’t think it will be around for very long.

First of all, I have never rated Halle Berry as an action heroine. This goes back to her Bond movie and the publicity shots they put out of her in wet bikini and knife belt. I knew there was something wrong with this picture when I first saw it, but was unable to work out what it was until I saw it again in a different article, on the same page as a picture of the immortal Ursula Andress from Dr. No. Looking at the two of them in more or less identical outfits explained to me what was wrong – not only with the Berry picture, but the way action women are treated.

Halle Berry wore her knife belt as a fashion statement. Her main concern: has she colour-coordinated? Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for my close up now, I am beautiful”; Ursula Andress wore her knife belt as a weapon, and her main concern is survival. Her face and body language say, “I’m ready for anything, I am dangerous”. If they fail to cast the right people into these roles. how can they possibly hope to make a successful film? You can get away with it in a Bond film, but not when she has to carry the show.

Low expectations stopped me from being too disappointed in Catwoman. It seemed to me that the script was written by a committee who couldn’t decide what genre it was going to be in. It started as a chick flick and slowly changed into an action film that was rather short of action. Even the climatic “catfight” scene was a let down. Now I love a good catfight – hell I even write the stuff – but I don’t appreciate one that’s badly done. I’m afraid that special effects and stuntwomen just don’t do it for me in this sort of situation.

I got the movie Bringing down the House starring Steve Martin from our local video a few weeks previous to this, and was pleasantly surprised at what a good fight it contained. It was between Queen Latifah and some blonde who fought mainly with their fists with a few kicks thrown in for variety. My question is; if they can put a good, knock-down, drag-out fight into a comedy, why can’t they put one into a so-called action movie?”

Dir: Pitof
Stars: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Lambert Wilson