Floozies with Uzis, Broads with Swords

and other violent femmes

Why will I happily sit through a lame, no-brain actioner with a female star, when I give the works of Steven Seagal a wide berth? While some might choose to see signs of submissive fantasies in this interest in strong women, I would say it’s less a sexual thrill than an aesthetic one. Tedium can be relieved by cuteness – air-hostesses serve much the same purpose. An action film with a beautiful heroine may not be intrinsically ‘better’, but it certainly rates a point or two on the TC watchability chart. And if I can get my fix of cathartic violence in a package which is attractive to look at, why not?

Hollywood has had something of a love-hate relationship with female action stars: they love them, but unfortunately, the audience seems to hate them, and as a result, the last few years have been littered with the stiff, cold corpses of movies like ‘Tank Girl’, ‘Barb Wire’ and ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’. This is doubly odd, since television has shown that there is undeniably a market for the likes of Buffy, Xena and Nikita. The reasons for the cinematic failures are complex and varied: perhaps they reflect a deep psychological and possibly Oedipal fear among the core 16-25 male audience. Or maybe it’s just that the films are crap.

Quite conceivably, both could be the case – Pamela Anderson’s fans may have preferred something more soft and pliable (such as her sucking Tommy’s dick?) rather than a near-psychotic and amoral Humphrey Bogart ripoff. I happily admit, her attempts at “acting” were laughable, but, hey, when has that ever stopped Oliver Grunier? For the truth is that action heroes of both sexes are almost invariably chosen for things other than their acting ability. That really hurts, because while you can give the illusion of anyone getting kicked, shot or flying through the air (see Kylie Minogue in ‘Street Fighter II’ for an example), getting them to deliver lines in a convincing manner is harder to fake.

For men, the favoured element is having won a sizable number of maximum brutality martial arts titles, but for women it’s apparently more important to be a soft-porn model, beauty queen or MTV video-jockette. This is perhaps inevitable, given the makers’ obsessive welding of sex with violence, regardless of relevance. It’s apparently not enough to have a woman wielding a semi-automatic weapon, she’s got to do it in high heels and lingerie, which will inevitably cramp her style. Guys rarely have to put up with the same kind of thing, though Van Damme’s buttocks do seem to appear in his films with monotonous regularity.

In the best examples, sexuality flows naturally from the heroine, rather than where she’s trying to look like Madonna circa 1989. However, as with any kind of film, there are no guarantees of success or failure, and fetishism can work supremely well in small doses – ‘Queen’s High’, where Cynthia Khan goes berserk with an Uzi, clad in a blood-spattered wedding dress, comes to mind here. Equally, getting a “proper” actress is no guarantee of success, as is proven by Oscar winner Geena Davis’s twin bombs, ‘Cut-throat Island’ and ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’. One has to wonder what Paul Verhoeven’s unmade take on the former, ‘Mistress of the Seas’ would have been like.

So here are 26 entries, one for each letter of the alphabet. This list is by no means comprehensive, nor is quality any part of the criteria for selection – like women themselves, the following cover the good, the bad and the ugly… However, our little tour through the alphabet of kick-ass women begins with probably the greatest of ‘em all:

A is for Aliens – “Get away from her, you bitch!”

The single most reconizable image in female action cinema

Back when work began on this film, James Cameron was best known for ‘Piranha 2’, though he had just finished a little SF pic starring an Austrian body-builder. So who’d have guessed he’d turn in a contender for best action film of all time? Big guns, big characters and big one-liners mesh perfectly around Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, a reluctant goddess of war. She alone would guarantee this its blue plaque of honour, but then there’s also Vasquez, admirably played by Jeanette Goldstein – alongside these two, the men are spineless wimps. The finale has a nicely equilateral feel to it, the two queens fighting over Newt, like some bizarre lesbian custody battle. Cameron enhanced his reputation as a “feminist” with ‘Terminator 2’, in which Linda Cameron turned para-military (albeit with shaven armpits), then blew it all in ‘True Lies’, Jamie Lee Curtis flapping her way around the screen like a startled, if well-muscled, butterfly. And while I think we should draw a polite veil over ‘Titanic’, Cameron’s place in the pantheon is already assured. A+

B is for Black Scorpion – a close shave…

This is dreadful. However, it is dreadful in a heart-warming and largely enjoyable way, even if it’s admiring how the bondage-clad-vigilante­-ex-cop-with-a-murdered-father-heroine’s high heels change from six-inch stilettos to flat boots, depending on whether she’s standing around being stern or kicking arse. Equally endearing is a low-rent Darth Vader known as (giggle) the Breathtaker, whose presence does at least explain the otherwise entirely superfluous prologue. Joan Severance looks great in the title role, like Xena: Warrior Dominatrix right down to her armoured ponytail + lovely blue eyes, though put it this way, she must also have gone through a few Lady Gillettes in that costume. With so much effort spent making her look spiffy, the plot and characters suffer badly – for some reason, the credits include a ‘Donkey Wrangler’, which presumably refers to the actors, since I don’t recall any long-eared equines. And I’ve seen racist, sexist, homophobic movies before, but this is the first one where the villains are asthma sufferers. Roll on Part 2! [Not to mention the proposed TV series, albeit without the depilated delights of Ms.Severance.] C+

C is for CIA: Code-name Alexa – and the rest of the Nikita clones

While the original remains a classic – no more need really be said – there have been plenty of imitations, official and otherwise, since the success of Besson’s movie. Of course, few come anywhere close. ‘Black Cat’, the Hong Kong copy, did at least have a sparky central actress in Jade Leung, and was popular enough to spawn a sequel, though ‘Black Cat 2’ is closer to ‘Peter Pan’, thanks to excessive fly-by-wire work. ‘The Assassin’ was about as good as most Hollywood remakes – not very – and is best considered a dodgy dubbing job, while TV series ‘La Femme Nikita’ ran out of steam rapidly. ‘Alexa’ has a somewhat flimsy grasp with respect to the jurisdiction of US governmental organizations, and has the CIA openly operating inside America, turning captured terrorist Alexa (Kathleen Kinmont) into a government tool overseen by Lorenzo Lamar, while cop O.J.Simpson picks up the debris. It does at least throw a couple of new ideas into the mix but, as with all the clones, the problem is that ‘Nikita’ is simply superior in every way. Better to check out Kinmont in barbarian bimbo pic, ‘Phoenix the Warrior’. D

D is for The Demolitionist – Blondes Have More Guns

The special effects firm of KNB (Kurtzmann, Nicotero and Berger) have been involved in many genre classics, for example, ‘Evil Dead 2’ and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’. But have they learned anything about film-making? This film is a femme-fatale version of ‘Robocop’, with Nicole Eggert as the resurrected crime-fighter, taking on Richard Grieco and Tom Savini. It’s very cheap, the total budget was a mere one million dollars, and you can tell from the lame climax that the money ran out – plans for a massive Savini/Eggert sword fight went by the board. For the most part though, it doesn’t show too badly, with at least the FX being up to scratch, as you’d expect. While we ain’t talking Dostoevsky, you get lots of cool firepower, blood squibs that explode in clouds of pink dust, and Eggert in an incredibly tight costume. Could have been much worse, really – at least in the American version, as the BBFC were impressed enough to cut out four minutes. B-

E is for Eve of Destruction– Uzi does it [or is it an Ingram?]

The “renegade robot” subgenre of violent totty is surprisingly common and, as perhaps the first, this was a remarkably influential B-movie, with ‘Long Kiss Goodnight’ in particular borrowing the ‘accidental’ triggering of dual personas (one motherly, the other aggressively slutty) and the wise-cracking black sidekick, but ‘Species’ and ‘Barb Wire’ also appropriate elements. Renee Soutendijk is both single-mom scientist, and  her nuclear-laden, gun-totin’, android creation. Government agent Gregory Hines has to track the artificial one down, despite it possessing far better dress sense than its dowdy mentor – and it’d be much more fun on a night out. When bullets are flying, the film really motors; between times, Hines shoulders the burden of interest with a nicely dry performance which helps divert attention from the obvious plot holes. Trivia note: director/writer Duncan Gibbins died trying to rescue his cat in the ‘93 Hollywood fires. B-

Renee Soutendijk goes out in a blaze of glory

F is for Fatal Termination – the Moon is eclipsed

While any Moon Lee film is a viable candidate for inclusion, here she is upstaged, by one of the youngest action actresses ever, who is only about four years old. It’s a shining example of how a single scene can lift an otherwise commonplace movie: in this case, Moon clinging to the bonnet of the bad guys’ car, while it careers at high velocity through the street. The clincher, however, is that an evil scoundrel is dangling her character’s wee daughter out of the window by the hair, like an unusual pennant, and the tiny terror is entirely convincing. Though surely they wouldn’t really hang a toddler out of a speeding car…would they? Regardless of such brief moral qualms, this is a perfect example of the “only in a Hong Kong movie” moment. Without wishing to give everything away, suffice it to say that Moon need not worry too much about future school expenses – and for that reason, and not just because it contains corrupt, slimy Customs officers, this one holds a special place in our heart. C+  

G is for Ghost in the Shell, plus  other large-eyed anime women

Japanese animation is not a homogeneous genre. It runs the gamut in style and content from the sublime to the ridiculous. But in general, its hit-rate with female action heroines is significantly better than Hollywood: while the West dips its toes in the water, Japan does lengths up and down the pool. Aika, Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair: you could do an A-Z without leaving Tokyo. And, indeed, virtually without leaving the works of Masamune Shirow: Appleseed, Black Magic, Dominion.  ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has all the elements he loves – androids, babes and really cool weapons. These factors are great, and the look combines computer graphics and traditional animation to good effect. A shame, therefore, that the plot leaves a lot to be desired: it starts off as the hunt for a rogue AI, then gets lost in pseudo-philosophical ruminations about the nature of humanity. ‘Battle Angel Alita’ did this sort of thing better, and far less obviously; ‘Ghost’ grinds to a halt for exposition before shooting off at 100 m.p.h. once more. The resulting ride is as you’d expect: very bumpy, albeit never boring. C

H is for Heroic Trio – Now That’s What I Call a Six-pack

If one uberbabe is good, two is better, and three the stuff of which dreams are made. Besides Michelle Yeoh, you have the fabulous Maggie Cheung, and the just-as-wonderful Anita Mui, in an epic comic-book tale which cranks all emotions up to eleven. This is a chick-flick, in the strict sense of the word, with heavy doses of tearful romance, terminal illness, and even babies (yeuch!). But the irony is laid on thick, with all of the above subverted in delicious ways, leaving it teetering beautifully on the edge of self-parody. Larger-than-life characters, excellent action, and perhaps the greatest theme song in HK cinema, make it one of the best. The sequel, ‘Executioners’ is radically different, a grim thriller set in a totalitarian future, by the end of which, there is a vacancy in the titular group… Given the pointed, political satire, it’s appropriate that it was pretty much the last great female action film to come out of Hong Kong. A and B- respectively.

I is for In the Line of Duty – “Do you know you freed a scoundrel? Are you feeling pleasant?”

HK titleBritish title
RoyalWarriorsPolice Assassins
Yes, MadamPolice Assassins 2
In the Line of Duty 3Force of the Dragon
In the Line of Duty 4In the Line of Duty

This series,of films produced by Hong Kong’s D&B Films, initially starred Michelle Yeoh, then known as Michelle Khan; after the first two, she married D&B’s owner, and was replaced by Cynthia Khan. The series illustrates the nightmare of multiple titles: there is no part 1 or 2 in Hong Kong, it was only at the third film that the monicker was formally used there, following the success of the first two under that name in continental Europe. And as for Britain, well, pay attention…

There, I hope that’s cleared everything up. The series was reviewed in TC12 (out of print now, but they’re up on the web site) – suffice to say here that Michelle Yeoh went on to greater things, the series petered out, D&B went bankrupt, and Cynthia Khan was last heard of making poverty-row cheapies in the Phillipines. However, all of the above are worth checking out, and are shining examples of the girls-with-guns genre.

J is for James Bond and his girls – The Magnificent 007

As discussed elsewhere, about the only good thing in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was the presence of former beauty-queen and action actress Michelle Yeoh, though she was woefully underused, and her character hideously underwritten. But she was scarcely novel; Bond girls (especially the nasty ones) have often been feistier than average: Grace Jones and Famke Janssen are undeniable evidence that being bad can be very good. Pussy Galore in ‘Goldfinger’ is another prototype, with Honor Blackman more or less reprising her Avengers role: She flies planes! She smokes! She knows karate! And proving that Michelle Yeoh was a long way from being the first 007 starlet possessing a lethal kick, back in 1963, ‘From Russia With Love’ gave us Rosa Klebb and her spiked shoes; her job interview for a prospective assassin is a knuckle-dustered punch in the guts. This woman is hard: actress Lotte Lenya was a former child prostitute, and also married – twice – to Kurt Weill. But see elsewhere for a fuller discussion of 007 and his women…

K is for Knights: cue Python jokes

If you’ve got wooden actors, it’s a tried and tested routine to have ‘em play robots: see Arnie for details. So when all but one of your stars are mechanical men, what does it say about their acting ability? For that’s what we have here, behind a title whose relevance escapes me. ‘Vampires’ would be closer, as the cyborgs rely on human blood for fuel, can only be killed with a knife through the brain, etc. Against them is nice ‘borg Kris Kristofferson, a surprising but effective action hero, who trains human fighter and five-time kickboxing champion Kathy Long to take on cyborg leader Job – Lance Henriksen adds to his collection of memorable villains. Though chunks of this are frankly laughable, it does catch fire when Long starts to kick arse with a no-nonsense style, and as ever in films with cyborgs, you get a thoughtful debate about the qualities of humanity. The ending points blatantly to a series – though it never materialised, this didn’t stop director Albert Pyun returning to the genre (see R). C+

Kathy Long looks menacing. Kris Kristofferson lurks

L is for The Long Kiss Goodnight – “Chefs do that.”

After ‘Thelma and Louise’ (a film which proves a cliched, polemic script can be salvaged by kick-ass direction and performances), Geena Davis seemed to get a taste for action. Sadly, the audience begged to differ, first for ‘Cut-throat Island’, then in this, again under then-hubby Renny Harlin, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a warm, fuzzy family film or amoral, seditious, slaughter. Davis certainly cuts a peroxide blonde dash, but it’s jarringly at odds with the love shown to her annoying, whiny brat daughter – “are we going to die?” she bleats, and you really hope the answer is yes. Samuel L. Jackson supports bravely, but the plot surpassed my (highly flexible) disbelief and the good lines get mis-directed. This idea has potential, which makes the final affirmation of all-American family values sadly wasteful. I feel I should also point out that Geena Davis is the only woman in the world who can be dunked repeatedly in ice-cold water without her nipples getting even slightly perky. Now, that’s what I call tough… C-

M is for Mulan – and also for Mononoke Hime

Disney’s merchandising monster moves on –
Mulan Christmas tree ornaments…

Since the pseudo-feminist dreck of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Disney have been trying to dump a reputation for wimpy, wall-flower heroines who do little except get rescued. Here, they’ve nailed it spot-on, with a heroine who goes her own way without needing to behave like Andrea Dworkin with a hangover. And they know it – put out in ’98, it’s already being re-released. Sure, it’s still Disney, U-rated and with songs, but they’re easy enough to ignore. The usual problem is a bland central character, with great villains and sidekicks: while Eddie Murphy, the guardian “lizard” (“dragon…I don’t do that tongue thing!”), still steals the show, Mulan herself is memorable and endearing as she joins the Chinese army as a man, to save her father; it’s the villainous Hun, Shan-Yu, who is probably the least convincing character. Animation ranges from excellent up to sublime – ­the sequence where Mulan prepares to depart is a masterpiece of wordless cinema – and the script delicately balances between appealing to kids and adults. See ‘Wing Chun’ for Michelle Yeoh engaging in  similarly necessary transvestism – of course, that it’ll also shift shedloads of merchandising to both boys and girls is a trifling aside… This will do very nicely indeed. A

Mulan isn’t the only sword wielding Asian heroine on Disney’s books – at some point (the release date has been pushed back more often than Johnny Depp’s fringe), they’ll give a theatrical release to the latest film from anime god Hayao Miyazaki, ‘Mononoke Hime’: in the West, it’ll be called ‘Princess Mononoke’. Despite being the biggest-grossing film in Japan before ‘Titanic’, I sense nervousness from Disney, since they’re contractually obliged to release intact a film containing some spectacular limb-lopping. The eponymous heroine guards a forest under threat from a technocratic warrior queen, with the help of the various spirits which live there. So far, so good – except it’s perilously close to Miyazaki’s earlier ‘Nausicaa’ [a.k.a. ‘Warriors of the Wind’, in a mutilated version]. If you’ve seen that, people, incidents and scenes may have you going, “Isn’t that…?”, and the overall ethos borders on a rehash.

But I can guarantee you there’ll be absolutely no Mononoke Happy Meals (TM)!

Generally, Miyazaki’s strength is characters to whom you can truly relate, with even the villains given depth beyond the dreams of Disney. Here, however, he goes too far: I found myself empathising more with the nominal villainness. He also overcomplicates the heroes, with so many different species of forest guardians that you need a scorecard to keep track, and overall, watching the film becomes more of a tedious chore than a pleasure. The animation is still of the highest quality, and the first twenty minutes in particular are superbly bleak and cynical; beyond that there’s a steadily declining return. It’s a film that makes its point swiftly and effectively – then proceeds to hammer away at it repeatedly for over two hours. If you want to watch a beautifully crafted, 134-minute party political broadcast for the Green Party, this is it. C-

N is for No Contest – No Imagination either, but (Scottish accent, please) No Too Bad

This is a surprisingly good ‘Die Hard’ clone, with Shannon Tweed as the action movie star (‘Tae Kwon Doll’) trapped in a building when the bad guys take over a beauty pageant. Tweed is pleasantly fallible, her film roles not really preparing her character for real violence, while the supporting cast is solid B-movie stars like Roberto Davi (who was in the original ‘Die Hard’), Roddy Piper and Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay, largely playing against type: Piper is a villain, while Davi is the closest thing the film has to a romantic lead. The villains are all given more personality than you’d expect; indeed, in this department, they come off rather better than the beauty queen hostages, who are almost interchangeable, doing little more than flounce in high-heels and squeal in terror. Director Peter Lynch usually has something interesting going on, though the second half does contain rather too much creeping along corridors. Still, better than expected: what it lacks in originality is more than made up for in memorable characters. C+

O is for Outlaw Brothers – and not forgetting Oshima

For a while, it looked like Yukari Oshima would be the first Eastern artiste to cross over into Hollywood. Already with a cult following after films like ‘Angel’ [a.k.a. ‘Iron Angels’], she acquired herself an American agent and looked poised to break through, thanks to her devastating combination of looks, charisma and talent. But then…nothing. Somehow, it  fell apart, into a slew of cheap Phillippino phlicks (where old action babes go to die: see also Cynthia Khan) leaving us to cling onto her memory through films like this rollicking, good-natured romp directed by and starring Frankie Chan. He’s a car thief, she’s a cop out to get him, they team up to fight coke-snorting gangster Michiko Nishiwaki in another of her trademark chocolate-coated mini-roles. While you can tick off the cliches – car park fight, warehouse battle, humorous interlude in a restaurant – they fly past with such enthusiasm you can’t really complain, even if the hoped-for Oshima/Nishiwaki catfight never materialises. It’s also a rather good training video for anyone planning life as a car thief… B

P is for Powerpuff Girls bridging the gap between Aeon Flux and Hello Kitty

As Japanese animation was originally inspired by the likes of Disney, in turn American animation is now taking heed, and producing things like the undeniably anime-styled (check out those eyes!) ‘Powerpuff Girls’. The youngest superheroine team around – they’re still in kindergarten – were created by Craig McCracken, who worked on the equally odd ‘Dexter’s Lab’. Here, over-achieving pre-schoolers Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup take on a raft of bizarre adversaries, such as the Boogie Man, a 70’s-styled monster-under-the-bed who aims to create eternal night by eclipsing the sun with a Death Star sized disco ball – cue an entire Star Wars sequence. That gives you a flavour of the fantastic invention crammed into each episode; mercifully, they’re only ten minutes long,  as that’s really about all anyone could handle without their head exploding. It’s all highly manic. The style is simple (note the lack of fingers), yet effective, and it’s not every kid’s cartoon where you get to see nunchakus being waved around. The main weakness is a great degree of unevenness; some episodes just don’t work, but the good ones are so good that they more than make up for it.

The top ten, medium no object.

  1. Sigourney Weaver: Ellen Ripley – Aliens
  2. Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui: The Heroic Trio
  3. Aeon Flux – Peter Chung
  4. Lucy Lawless: Xena: Warrior Princess [with a nod to Hudson Leick as Callisto!]
  5. Lara CroftTomb Raider
  6. Mima Shimoda: ex-tag team title-holder, WWWA
  7. Anne Parillaud: Nikita
  8. Yukari Oshima: Madame Su – Angel
  9. Elektra –Frank Miller
  10. Kei & YuriDirty Pair

Q is for The Quick and the Dead:  “You need a bath.”

Something of a vanity production for lead and executive producer Sharon Stone, not just hand-picking director Sam Raimi, but also paying the salary of Leonardo di Caprio out of her own pocket. Like most such things, it is somewhat self-indulgent (Shazza gets Armani sunglasses and perfect hair), but most of the people involved have enough talent to keep it on the rails. This is no serious film, however, being a 100-minute homage to Sergio Leone: the plot has Stone using Hackman’s quickdraw contest to get revenge on her father’s murderer, and is largely a chance for Raimi to demonstrate interesting ways to shoot people. Never less than totally predictable, it still remains hugely entertaining: Gene Hackman is great, Lance Henriksen and Russell Crowe are very good, Di Caprio is less annoying than you’d expect and Stone gets to wear some great boots. B

R is for Ravenhawk – muscling your way in

Rachel McLish appears to be attempting the Schwarzenegger route to fame: this former body-builder was in ‘Pumping Iron 2’, and is now appearing in action movies.This is more ‘Conan’ than ‘Terminator’ though, under the guidance, once more, of prolific exploito-rector Albert Pyun. She is a “Native American”, wrongly convicted (naturally) of killing her parents. When freed by a ‘Fugitive’-style accident, she naturally goes off to track down those responsible. The sleeve proudly states that she does all her own stunts, but in reality there’s not much on view beyond horse-riding and a spot of rock-climbing. However, the cinematography is excellent, aided by some great locations, and you also get Skinner from ‘The X Files’ as one of the bad guys. While this hardly breaks new ground, and the ethnic angle grates badly, it’s no worse than some of Arnie’s early attempts. Give her a decade and she’ll probably be marrying a Kennedy. D+

S is for Super Lady Cop – “Wake up – time to fly!”

A gang of artificial humans jump ship and go on a search for their creator in a quest for perfection, having realised their lifespan is limited. One of their brethren is ordered to track them down. Ring any bells? Yes, just as ‘Barb Wire’ can be enjoyed in a whole new way, once you know it’s a girls-with-guns remake of ‘Casablanca’, so this movie shifts to a different level when you suddenly comprehend this is ‘Blade Runner’, done as a heavily wire-assisted martial-arts B-movie. Cynthia Khan plays Harrison Ford playing Deckard in this rare example of Hong Kong SF, though the subtlety and depth of Ridley Scott’s film is replaced by silly comic mugging – not by Khan, who is admirably straight. While her career has been downhill since her debut (after the wonderful ‘In the Line of Duty 3’, could it be otherwise?), there are nicely imaginative touches such as an “amnesia gun” several years before ‘Men in Black’, and the action is well-staged. Quirkily off-the-wall, it’s never dull, especially once you recognize its source: frequently stupid and unamusing, possibly, but certainly not dull! C+

T is for Tank Girl – how to make a crisis out of a drama

I expected to hate this, but I didn’t. Well, not as much as expected. It remains, however, a textbook example of prime, sliced, comic-book turkey: alienate the fans by holding fake auditions for the already cast title role, remove the subversion which was the original’s main appeal, then confuse everyone else by hurling animation, strip montages and full-scale musical numbers into a post-apocalyptic action movie. The result is a mess; the main surprise, given original source material that’s a hodgepodge of new-lad feminism and pulp SF, is that it holds up to almost half-way, though boorish behaviour isn’t amusing or endearing simply ‘cos it’s done by a chick having a bad hair day. Then the Rippers show up, mutant kangaroos with foam ears who are the dumbest monsters I’ve seen for a long time – Stan Winston should be ashamed, and at least Ice T looks suitably embarrassed. From this point on, the film rapidly self-destructs and ceases to be of interest. D-

U is for Undefeatable – or should that be “Unwatchable”? [Ducks in a barrel…]

Cynthia Rothrock deserves applause as about the only Western woman to star in Hong Kong action films, and even now remains the most active American action actress. More remarkably still, she’s done it unencumbered by significant acting talent. This isn’t necessarily a problem: Hong Kong films like ‘The Magic Crystal’ or ‘Yes, Madam’ play to her strengths and work well, but even the best of her American ones fall woefully short. Once referred to in an Eastern Heroes press release as ‘Under the Table’, this is American, though directed by HK ultra-hack, Godfrey Ho (or ‘Hall’ in the credits) and his tactic is to make Rothrock look like Meryl Streep by filling out the cast with even worse actors. The plot revolves around a psycho fighter whose wife walks out on him, causing him to kidnap and torture women who look similar – which explains the strange preponderance of henna’d heroines. But then he kills Cynthia’s sister…you know the rest. Don Naim is certainly creepily nasty as the villain, and that’s it – the cop whom Rothrock assists, John Miller, is especially bad. Ho knows two camera positions and the whole thing is utterly dreary, shot on a budget of fourpence and with an apparent ignorance of even basic technique. Two creepy moments and some eye violence are nowhere near enough. E+

V is for V.I.P. – if at first you don’t succeed, try television instead

What do you do if your first foray into action-babe territory is critically slammed, and a box-office disaster? Why, make a TV series! So Pammie and her (now all-natural) mammies take a leaf from the ‘Buffy’ book, but unlike Joss Whedon, tries a new concept: ‘Barb Wire – the TV show’ might not have floated. Anderson is Vallery Irons, a hot-dog seller turned celebrity bodyguard, which provides a fine excuse for cameos from other celebs. “The premise is a little bit like Pretty Woman,” says creator and executive producer J.F.Lawton, with an admirably straight face, though I guess he should know, since he produced that too. What he omits is that this may well be the final trash TV classic of the 1990’s, swinging wildly from gratuitously tight costumes to…er, gratuitously loose costumes. It knows it, however, and is refreshingly free of a) content, and b) David Hasselhoff. Groin-candy of the highest order.

W is for Warrior Queen – N.B. do not confuse with any Warrior Princesses

Back before Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton came on the scene, films like ‘L.A. Bounty’ had Sybil Danning raising “monosyllabic” to an art-form. Together with her amazing cleavage, she delivered a slew of memorable B-movie performances – Battle Beyond the Stars, Chained Heat, The Howling II – and almost snared Jeanette Goldstein’s role in ‘Aliens’. However, her career was tragically derailed by a blown wrestling stunt, leaving us to ponder what might have been. Though in the case of ‘Warrior Queen’, it’s closer to “what the hell is going on?”. This is a low-rent version of Tinto Brass’s ‘Caligula’: porn with classy actors, directed by the late Chuck Vincent and sees X-rated stars like Samantha Fox alongside Danning and, even more bizarrely, Donald Pleasance. The alternate title, ‘Pompeii’, gives a glimpse of the contents, which end in a glorious explosion of stock footage. Until then, Sybil occasionally swings her sword, and Donald looks…confused, but you’ll see more sex than you do of either star, and it’s enough to ensure the UK release is 9 minutes shorter. Perhaps significantly, the edits have no detectable impact on coherence. D

X is for Xena: Warrior Princess – N.B. do not confuse with any Warrior Queens

Okay, we did Xena last time, but choices for X are limited, so let’s talk about ‘TC 2000’ instead – not a complete copout, for reasons that will eventually be apparent. Director T.J. Scott must be a Verhoeven fan: this mixes ‘Robocop’ and ‘Total Recall’ in a post-apocalyptic industrial estate where the rich live underground. Cute, blonde, future-cop (Bobbie Phillips) is blown away to provide fodder for an experiment in cyborg enforcers, returning as the titular TC 2000, a nifty black-leather clad vixen, much to the concern of former partner (and now tae-bo guru) Billy Blanks. There’s also something about the environment being deliberately screwed up, but best ignore a dodgy plot (why are there next to no guns?) and severely limited acting in favour of the extremely copious martial arts sequences involving Blanks, Phillips, Bolo Yeung and Matthias Hues. Certainly never lethargic, there’s the odd bit of visual flair to liven things up, and we’d like to see more of Phillips. In both senses. [She did turn up in the recent Wes Craven-produced remake of ‘Carnival of Souls’] As for the X:WP link, Scott went on to become a production consultant on the show, and directed a slate of eps, including perhaps the best ever, ‘Callisto’ – which also features a blonde, black-leather clad vixen… Coincidence? I think not. C

Y is for YellowHair and the City of Gold – “You’re one of my two favourite smells…”

This 1984 spaghetti western stars Laurene Landon as the titular blonde (rather than red) Indian, whose murdered mother holds the key to a great treasure coveted by American adventurers and Mexican generals, and guarded by a particularly unwelcoming tribe who specialise in impromptu body piercing and eyelid-removal. Predictably, this wants to be ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and just as inevitably, comes second in every important department. The major problem isn’t the imagination or action, both of which are fine – the latter showcased in an accomplished stagecoach chase which has the main leads doing a surprising amount of their own stunts. It’s just that director Matt Cimber (who also gave us the Pia Zadora trash classic, ‘Butterfly’) hasn’t a clue what to do between times, with scenes that start suddenly, tail off into nothing, take far too long, and appear to have been edited with a butter knife. While aiming to be a pastiche of silent cinema serials, that idea is discarded between the first ten minutes (in which no-one says a word) and the end credits. Such casual sloppiness is symbolic of the film as a whole, and that’s a shame, for the concept of “a female Indiana Jones”, as the sleeve puts it, is one with potential. C-

Z is for Zeiram – and indeed, Zero Woman

Two possible entries for Z, both Japanese. However, that’s about where the similarities end. The former is from the director of the cheerily cheap ‘Cyber Ninja’, and is an SF romp which sees bounty hunter Yuko Moriyama taking on the titular alien, owing more than a little to ‘Predator’. Should this ring bells, it’s perhaps because an anime series, ‘Iria’, was made from the same source, though over six episodes, it has a bit more room to maneoeuver. The live-action one goes little beyond a monster-hunt, and while Moriyama is great, all feisty and intense, the obviously cheapo effects puncture the illusions. The sequel, sadly unreleased here, fares a lot better in this regard, and the setting matches Moriyama’s performance. Much the same problem bedevils ‘Zero Woman’, a thriller about an amoral female cop (Natsuki Ozawa) tracking down stolen share certificates: Ozawa looks the part, and it makes a great trailer, but the performances don’t deliver. You find yourself waiting impatiently for the next bout of gratuitous violence (copious) or nudity (slightly less plentiful that I wanted). Still, in Japanese cinema, both make a pleasant change from samurais… C and C-