La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses

Vendetta

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“Ripe for a remake starring Zoë Bell.”

vendettaMovie stunt-woman Laurie Collins (Chase) is out for the night with her sister, Bonnie, until the latter accepts the company of a young man. When things get more than a bit rape-y, and Bonnie ends up shooting her attacker dead. She is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, much to the chagrin of her sister. Worse is to follow after Bonnie is sent to prison, as there, she then falls foul of the jail’s top dog, Kay Butler (Martin). Bonnie soon turns up a corpse, with the incident written off as suicide, due to the heroine found in her veins. But Laurie doesn’t believe a word of it, and deliberately commits grand theft auto, among other crimes, in order to be sent to the same prison, where she can find those responsible, and make them pay for what they did to Bonnie.

Starting with a film-within-a-film scene which had me wondering if I was watching the wrong, post-apocalyptic movie, it’s a nice idea to have the heroine be a stunt-woman, and gives a credible explanation for her physical talents. This 1986 film is also ahead of the curve in making, in explicitly making the facility a “for-profit” prison, something which would eventually become an issue almost three decades later. That said, this does appear to be a rather cushy penal establishment, where inmates are well compensated for their work, and there is both a swimming-pool(!) and a video-arcade(!!). It doesn’t skimp on the exploitational aspects, with the shower scenes typical for the genre, and the rape of Bonnie is genuinely nasty.

In this, it shares something of the same look and feel as Reform School Girls, made that year, right down to the presence of an blonde, obvious Ilsa-lookalike in charge, though Collins’s Miss Dice is far more sympathetic  than Sybil Danning’s Warden Sutter. [Coincidentally or not, both films also feature the Screamin’ Sirens’ song, “Love Slave”, during a scene of sexual abuse.] The main weakness here is likely Chase, who seems rather unconvincing in terms of physical presence, though does acquit herself half-decently in the action scenes. Her Laurie just doesn’t quite feel like the kind of character who would go to such elaborate lengths to extract brutal vengeance – and it’s a damn good thing she wasn’t sent to another facility. You can contrast her character with that of Martin, who definitely feel like the kind of scum that would rise to the top inside.

There is a certain bleakness to the ending [spoilers follow]. After Laurie has completed her revenge, with the help of Miss Dice, the warden turns to her and says, “Did it bring Bonnie back?”, then adding, “You have the rest of your life to think about that.” It’s somewhat disconcerting for the viewer who has been brought along on Laurie’s quest, suddenly to have the moral carpet yanked out from under them like this, instead of any closure. If the hairstyles haven’t aged well, this philosophical ambiguity has.

Dir: Bruce Logan
Star: Karen Chase, Sandy Martin, Kin Shriner, Roberta Collins

Vampire Chicks With Chainsaws

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“Had me at ‘chainsaws’, to be honest.”

This probably seemed better than it is, simply because it had the benefit of being watched immediately after Iconoclast. Two hours of static would have been an improvement on that. All told, this doesn’t suck. While clearly extremely low-budget (it reportedly cost a thousand bucks), and I’m not sure the plot would stand daylight any better than a vampire, it does at least deliver on what the title and sleeve promise. Indeed, within the first five minutes, we have fanged women wielding mechanical wood-cutting equipment. Check, check and check, even if the specific woman on the poster is not actually in the movie.

It plays somewhat like a backwoods version of Underworld – there’s certainly a lot more running through forests. By this, I mean the vampires are engaged in a centuries-long war against their enemy, into which an innocent human man is drawn, only for the lead vampire ass-kicker to fall in love with him. The vampires here also seems to share the same couture choice, albeit (obviously) at a much lower level of budget. The main difference is the opposition is provided, not by werewolves, but extra-terrestrials called “outlanders”. They came to earth and mated with our species, the resulting offspring being vampires. However, again for reasons of cost, the aliens are indistinguishable from humans, except for coughing up green blood when shot, stabbed or cut up (out of shot) with chainsaws.

The hero is Quinn Ash, whose life has sucked since his wife left him, and he’s living in crappy trailer, thoroughly disgruntled. Even though he’s a redneck in a vest. he speaks in voice-over, like a private eye in a hard-boiled film noir. Things change, albeit not necessarily for the better, when he literally runs into a young woman on a country road. Remarkably unhurt, she injects him with a syringe and runs off, before being captured by a group of men. Quinn is then captured too, by Karel (Lisonbee) and her vampire posse. They eventually – and by this, I mean after about 40 minutes where neither hero nor audience have any clue what’s going on – explain the scenario. Turns out Quinn had been injected with an experimental drug, developed by the outlanders to kill the otherwise immortal female vampires. So, the makers have seen Ultraviolet as well.

With a bit more money, this could have been worthwhile, even if the scenario (as noted) largely consists of aspects cobbled together from elsewhere. Instead, there’s too much running around in woods, and even the chainsaws are almost entirely sound effect. The script also needs to establish what the hell is going on a lot quicker: by the time there’s any meaningful exposition, you’re halfway through and have largely given up hope. All this said, it was never specifically dull, and I’d not mind seeing what Diego could do with a bit more resources. But this was simply a significant improvement on Iconoclast, and I’m very grateful for that alone.

Dir: Carlos Don Diego
Star: Adam Abram, Jenna Lisonbee, Jamie Rosquist, RaeAnn Christensen

The Vengeance of Fortuna West, by Ray Hogan

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Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

While I haven’t read many Westerns, my wife is an avid fan of the genre, and I know she also admires the strong, brave heroine type of character (so do I –I married one!), so I got her this book for Christmas, and then read it on her recommendation. Fortuna, the protagonist here, is the recent widow of a New Mexico marshal, who gets herself made a deputy in order to go after the outlaws who killed him –not as improbable a quest in her case as it would have been for most women of that era, since he taught her to handle a Colt more proficiently than most males, and she’s a skilled rider, huntress and tracker who once brought down a bear. (Of course, the terrain she has to search is rough, and the killer outlaws aren’t her only jeopardy.)

Hogan has been a prolific Western author, with well over 100 novels and a large body of short fiction to his credit; the sheer volume of his output probably militated against very careful craftsmanship, and his diction here is mediocre. He also gets his details tangled in a few places, and a few notes don’t ring quite psychologically true. But the novel succeeds as well as it does because of the appeal of Fortuna’s character; the plot is straightforward and Hogan’s writing style simple, making for a quick read (it could be read in a single long sitting, and he provides enough action and suspense that a reader might want to) and Fortuna’s need to choose whether she intends to bring her quarry in alive or execute them on the spot gives the story some moral depth. (There is some bad language here –which Hogan explains, through Fortuna’s musings, as a response to stress-and, obviously, some violence, but no sex.)

Author: Ray Hogan
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent

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“Corman gonna Corman.”

viking_women_and_sea_serpent_poster_01I can see why, purely for reason of brevity, the title above was preferred to the full one of The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, even though the latter is more accurate. For the Sea Serpent has a supporting role here, met once on their way in, and again on the way out – it’s much more about what happens in the middle. Three years after their men left, the women of the Stannjold clan leave their shores under the command of Desir (Dalton), trying to find out what happened to them. Encounter #1 with the monster leads them to be shipwrecked on the same shores of the Grimault tribe as their menfolk, whose king, Stark (Devon), has set them to work as slaves in his mines. After initially appearing to welcome the women, it becomes clear that Stark has plans for the new arrivals as well. Viking high-priestess Enger (Cabot) has her own agenda, however: having set her eyes both on Desir’s husband and, for more immediate and pragmatic reasons, Stark, she sabotages Desir’s first attempt to free the men.

Sometimes derided as among the worst movies of all time, it really isn’t that bad – it wasn’t even the worst movie I saw yesterday. Certainly, it’s guilty of biting off far more than it can chew. If the claims on the (quite lovely) poster above, of “fabulous” and “terrifying” are dubious, it’s the “spectacular” one that is widest of the mark, with a budget even the legendary Roger Corman subsequently admitted was woefully short of delivering on the concepts. [It didn’t help the scheduled lead actress demanded more money on the first day of shooting, so was fired, and replaced by Dalton] While Stark, for example, may be king of all he surveys, that appears to encompass about 12 men and a stretch of coastline obviously far more California than Scandinavia. And let’s not even get into rear-projection which dreams of reaching the heights of “utterly unconvincing,” or a sea-serpent which… Sorry, my supply of derogatory epithets falls entirely short of doing it justice, so best I don’t bother.

However, even if they look more like fashion models than Vikings, and act in some ways like giggly high-school girls, it’s still more laudable than, say, Mars Needs Women. The heroines here are actually portrayed as fairly competent – let’s face it, they survived without any men for three years – and brave, being willing to set sail in search of, and then attempt to rescue, their other halves. Both Dalton and Cabot are engaging, with the blonde naturally the good girl, though even the slutty one has an eventual crisis of conscience and is prepared to make a brave sacrifice for the greater good. At 71 minutes, it certainly can’t be accused of outstaying its welcome: while certainly dated, cheap and silly, this is definitely not boring, and its heart is in the right place.

Dir: Roger Corman
Star: Abby Dalton, Susan Cabot, Bradford Jackson, Richard Devon
[a.k.a. The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent]

Violet and Daisy

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Hanna turns eighteen. Not what you’d expect from the writer of Precious.

sealvioletdaisyThis opens with two young women, Violet (Bledel) and Daisy (Ronan), peeved because their favourite singer, Barbie Sunday, has cancelled an upcoming concert, to which they’d been looking forward. Their conversation continues as they approach an apartment, curiously dressed as nuns, and delivering pizza. However, curiosity will likely turn to bewilderment: when the door is opened, the girls both pull out hand-guns, and a brutal gun-battle erupts. Welcome to the surreal, yet oddly heart-warming world of Violet and Daisy, two hit-women who are talked out of a planned holiday with the promise of a job, offering them enough money to buy their hearts’ desires: clothes from Barbie’s Sunday’s fashion line. Except, their target, Michael (Gandolfini), seems bizarrely happy to see them. I mean, as well as him helpfully telling them where to get additional bullets, after their misguided attempt to shoot him with their eyes closed, none of their other victims have ever baked them cookies before…

From there, things are gradually revealed about the participants and their various issues. Violet, the older assassinette (Bledel was almost 30 while shooting this), acts as a mentor to Daisy, who has just turned 18, and hasn’t yet come to terms with the violence required for the job. It’s an interesting contrast to Ronan’s younger, somewhat similar, yet far more callous character in Hanna. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is Iris (Jean-Baptiste), the number one killer, who is intent on ensuring that Violet + Daisy don’t feel too much sympathy for their intended victim, and back out of the job. Michael, meanwhile, is keen for them to get on with it, because a pair of more unpleasant fates are also coming towards him. It’s nicely nuanced, shifting from blackly-comedic – check out V+D’s “internal bleeding dance” – through to poignant and emotional, the latter enhanced by the death, earlier this year, of Gandolfini.

There seems something almost Tarantino-esque about this: more than the hefty body count and a generally whimsical style, definitely a surprising choice as the directorial debut of the man who gave us the bleak urban coming-of-age story which was Precious. Like QT, Fletcher, who wrote the story too, has an excellent ear for dialogue, though fortunately lacking the more egotistical aspects, and the movie also jumps back and forth in time; so, as in Pulp Fiction, some scenes don’t make sense immediately, until the blanks are filled in later. Throw in cult icon Danny Trejo in a cameo role, and Orphan Black herself, Tatiana Maslany, as Michael’s estranged teenage daughter, and you’ve got one of the most unexpectedly pleasant surprises of 2013 overall. It’s an engaging and effective action heroine film too, and one which doesn’t rely purely on adrenalin and cleavage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…

Dir: Geoffrey S. Fletcher
Star: Saoirse Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolfini, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

The Vanquisher

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“Coherence? It’s vastly over-rated. Especially in Thailand, it appears.”

Thailand appears to have become a hot-bed of action-heroines in the past couple of years. Jeeja Chocolate Yanin is obviously a key component, but others appear to be leaping on the bandwagon: this one plays like an entry in the Angel series, a Hong Kong classic in its day. Unfortunately, so little effort is put into explaining what is going on, or who is doing what to whom, that the copious action feels like a showreel for participants. Both Chris and I nodded off for a bit in the middle, which is about the worst condemnation any action film can receive. Hence, I turn to Amazon.com for a synopsis.

“After completing a covert mission in southern Thailand, CIA agent Gunja (Sriban) finds herself forced to fight off operatives who’ve been ordered to take her out at all costs. She survives and after two years of laying low, re-emerges in Bangkok to face her old foes and foil a plot to detonate a bomb in the city.” Oh, so that’s what it was. Actually, I seem to recall a good chunk being about trying to capture a renowned terrorist, but that must be the “plot to detonate a bomb” bit. It’s filmed in a clunky mix of Japanese, English and Thai: I can’t speak for the first and last, but the English spoken appeared, far too often, to be of the second-language type. And the non-Caucasians in the cast were even worse. Hohoho.

The action is plentiful enough in the second half, especially compared to a first half that throws characters and plot-lines across the screen, largely without explanation as to purpose. It does improve somewhat in motion, with three kick-ass characters; or at least, who might be kick-ass, if the editing and cinematography ever gave a chance to see them doing so. Instead, it’s about 10% “Oh, that was cool,” and 90% “What happened there?” – in other words, about the same ratio as the plot. A nice idea, than in the right hands could have been an awful lot better.

Dir: Manop Udomdej
Star: Sophita Sriban, Jacqui A. Thananon, Saito Kano, Kessarin Ektawatkul
a.k.a. Final Target

Virgins From Hell

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“Not as good as the trailer. Then again, how could it be?”

Let’s start with that trailer, shall we?

Like I said: no way it could live up to that, and I must confess, my consciousness was being sorely troubled by the end. It’s about two sisters (Beatrice and Farida), who watch the gang of the evil, if nattily-dressed Mr. Tiger (Zulkarnaen) kill their parents and vow to take revenge, recruiting a bunch of like-hotpanted colleague to assist. Unfortunately, the attempt goes badly, and they end up in Tiger’s dungeon, subjected to various indignities, such as being stuffed into a sack with a peeved mongoose, or tied to a spit and roasted. They eventually bust out, with the help of their captor’s pet chemist, Larry (Capri), who has been tasked with producing large volumes of an aphrodisiac, from which Tiger can profit. It all climaxes in a massive battle between the gang and…the other gang.

Let’s be clear: most of the entertainment to be found in this, is strictly of the “so bad it’s fun” variety. For instance, we perpetually found ourselves in Evil Overlord mode, i.e. “If ever I become an evil overlord, I will ensure my compound is not dotted with large, explosive barrels, clearly marked DANGER.” The lameness of this is often amusing, such as the complete aversion to nudity, an obvious product of its origins – the heroines even take baths with their clothes on. Other elements are just bizarre, if educational: it appears, if you get shot, you can jam a live snake into the wound and it will come out holding the bullet in its teeth.

Great as this may sound, the novelty and appeal do evaporate steadily, with the cheapjack production values, non-existent characterization and idiotic plotlines eventually more outstaying their welcome, even for a fan of badfilm like me. The highpoint is likely the gratuitous appearance of a musak cover of Nights in White Satin. It will have Justin Heyward on speed-dial to his agent, and you’re likely better off watching the trailer again.

Dir: Ackyl Anwari
Star: Enny Beatrice, Yenny Farida, Harry Capri, Dicky Zulkarnaen

Velvet Smooth

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“That’s Ms. Smooth to you…though that’s the last word to describe this atrocity!”

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: at least one, possibly more, of the points awarded to this movie only apply if you, like us, are connoisseurs of the trash aesthetic. If you delight in bad acting, poor action and technical ineptness, this is for you. Otherwise…consider yourself warned. Not to be confused with Jeannie TNT Jackson Bell, this was Johnnie Hill’s only film – and when you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why. She plays Velvet, a private investigator brought in, along with her two female sidekicks (also adept in martial arts, even if we are redefining the word “adept” here), when someone starts encroaching on a crime lord’s territory. Who is behind this? And who is behind them?

From a story point of view, it’s actually not too bad, with a bunch of twists that keep things interesting. In every other way, however, it plunges into the Marianas trench of quality; witness, in particular, the boom-mike, beginning at 27:47 minutes in, which gets screen time that most actresses would kill for. The fight sequences are woeful; half are shot from such long range, you can barely see what’s going on, and the rest…well, when you see them, you’ll know why the makers opted for the long-range technique. The foley work is especially inadequate, in particular, the sound of a drum that accompanies every punch to flesh. On at least two occasions, we had to rewind the DVD repeatedly, because we literally didn’t believe what we were seeing – and not in a “Michelle Yeoh, train, bike, Supercop” way.

I guess it’s inevitable that even such a shallow genre as blaxploitation would be a target for cheap knock-offs, made by the talentless. About the only point of vague interest is a guest slot for the wonderfully-named Emerson Boozer, 2-time Pro Bowl running back for the Jets. It’s clear why his acting career didn’t take off, and in general, you wonder how such shoddy work could ever have been considered adequate. The old saw – this movie wasn’t released, it escaped – comes to mind. I think it’d have been better if Velvet Smooth had been held in Alcatraz.

Dir: Michael Fink
Star: Johnnie Hill, Owen Watson, Frank Ruiz, Emerson Boozer

Velvet Gloves

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This film is a 90-minute explanation of why Jade Leung’s star never took off. While some decisions Michelle Yeoh made might have been questionable, at least her films were rarely boring, and never down to the level of this piece of tedious dreck. It depicts the struggles of a class of policewomen (including Jade), to become part of the elite. The idea certainly has potential – the Inspector Wears Skirts series has a similar premise – but here, there is almost no character given to any of the girls; they all blur into each other, like a dozen GI Jane-wannabes.

The director – whoever they may be, since the credits were all in Chinese, and the Internet offers limited assistance either – also seems to believe that if two minutes of the ladies taking on an assault course is good, ten minutes must be better. Another example is the seven-day forced march, which feels like it was filmed in real time, and screws up the most obvious opportunity for tension. It does lead to a somewhat interesting sequence, where three of the women have to last two minutes fighting martial-arts instructors, to avoid getting kicked out. But there is no flow to the plot at all – it lurches from set-piece to set-piece without cohesion or progression. All of which would be tolerable if the action elements weren’t handled in such a lacklustre fashion, but there’s nothing here to write home about, except in a “PS. Obvious stunt doubling” kind of way.

For some strange reason, this film appears to be unavailable on DVD – should you want to see it (and if you do, I’ve clearly failed in my mission here), you’ll have to see the VCD, with its illegible subtitles and a plot synopsis which shakes hands and parts company with the truth after the first sentence. It opts to visit the land of Wild Fabrication instead, continuing: “Before graduation, the team is called to handle a hostage situation in a jewelry expo. Afterwards the girls are assigned to as the bodyguard of the first lady of a small country. But the first lady’s own rebellious guard kidnaps her and executes one of the girls…” There’s not a single word of truth there: the movie finishes – abruptly – on graduation day, after yet another training mission.

But if you know what film that synopsis actually describes, do let me know, because it’s almost certainly far more interesting and entertaining than this one. It may not be the worst action heroine film I’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the worst ever to come out of Hong Kong, which usually does such things with a certain degree of invention, enthusiasm and energy. None of these are visible here, in any amount.

Dir: Billy Chan Wui-Ngai
Stars: Jade Leung, Bobby Au, Farini Cheung, Zhang Fengyi