Daughter of the Last Action Heroine

A is for American Angels (Beverley and Ferd Sebastian) 
“C’mon – twist him, twist him! Make that little midget squeal!”
From the creators of such classics as ‘Gator Bait II, this is standard Rocky-type fare in the world of women’s pro-wrestling, enlivened by gutsy portrayals from actresses who are mostly in the business – fans of GLOW should recognise quite a few. Rookie Jan McKenzie incurs the anger of reigning champ (and actual full-contact martial arts title holder) Mimi Lesseos by encroaching on her man. This leads to the inevitable final showdown, but on the way there are a number of interesting diversions: one wrestler is trying to escape the gang life she led, another’s family has trouble accepting her career, while even the token midget comes across as about the least sleazy male character. Special praise to Sue Sexton as the trainer who’d put R.Lee Ermey to shame; overall, this is a small-budget film with a surprisingly big heart. B

B is for Body Count (Talun Hsu) 
“An assassin to die for”? Oh, please…
The publicity guys here had a better handle on things than the director, putting Brigitte Nielsen front and centre, when in reality, her role is little more than support to Sonny Chiba, an escaped hitman out for revenge on those who put him behind bars, led by Robert Davi. Chiba looks more like a salaryman than the Streetfighter of 25 years ago, yet there are flashes of fluid grace that impress. While the plot also contains some unusual twists, it keeps them back for so long that they end up being rushed out and misplayed. It’s hard to care by that stage, despite Davi and Nielsen’s best efforts, in character and tough-babe modes respectively. A film that is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. D

C is for The Chosen One (Lawrence Lanoff) 
“Did I mention the tits?”
That’s how Chris’s report ended – “Classic film for the evolution-challenged. Tits, tits, more fake tits, very tight catsuits, babes with guns, very tight catsuits, sex with milk, women who behave like sluts and don’t care who they fuck as long as they can drink out of the bottle, high-heeled string-up fighting boots, spike bracelets, tits, catfights, Playboy centrefold classically trained “actresses”, trailer trash townspeople with Jerry Springer guest etiquette… Did I mention the tits?” Need I say more? Well, it’s a bit hyper: she plays down the all-too plentiful cinematic cleavage i.e. what you get between the tits. This includes the plot – as in “thinly disguised Crow ripoff” – which has Carmen Electra’s murdered sister (Lorenzo Lamas’s wife, with half a liquidized cow in each lip), passing on a mystical amulet that turns Carmen into an avenging angel, after rising from the grave. The only interesting touch in it, sees the bad girl similarly energized, so you know where we’re heading! Could also have skipped all the mystical Indian mumbo-jumbo, and the overfrequent narration suggests someone doubted the script’s and/or actors’ ability to get the story over. I see their point. A film not without appeal, but badly in need of the courage of its convictions. C-

D is for Decoy (Victor Rambaldi) 
“She’s the nuts-and-fruit type.”
While it’s rare for any action pic to be more fun standing still than in motion, that’s the case here, with Robert Patrick and Peter Weller as Travis and Baxter, two bodyguards, respectively brain-damaged and merely weird, assigned to protect an industrialist’s daughter from Charlotte Lewis, a mercenary with a penchant for black combat gear and Really Big Guns. However, things ain’t what they seem – the title gives the game away, to a certain extent. The characters are great, much more so than the rather tedious running through forests and much shredding of innocent, bystanding foliage which passes for action. Still, Lewis cuts a dash, and is particularly impressive when firing off her RBG without so much as a blink. Though going by her cleavage, one can only assume Wonderbra now also make fatigues. C+

E is for Excessive Force II: Force on Force (Jonathan Winfrey) 
“Once you cross this special agent, you’ve crossed the line.”
I suppose the forces of the title might be the police force and renegade special forces who face each other in this pedestrian actioner; that’s showing more intelligence that the rest of the movie manages. Stacie Randall is Harly Cordell, an army special agent hunting an ex-colleague who has been hired to kill an informer. Just to slow things down, there’s an an unneecessary medical subplot, since Cordell was left with a bullet in her brain which causes her problems, albeit only at suitably “dramatic” moments. Randall kicks arse with an adequately terse style, although her dramatic range makes Cynthia Rothrock look like Meryl Streep, and indeed Randall’s blonde looks seem distinctly inspired by Rothrock. Some cheerful digital pyrotechnics briefly trigger a mild lifting of apathy; regrettably, not for long, and this one is severely forgettable. D-

F is for Five Lady Venoms (Cheng Chi Chiu) 
“More venomous than the male…”
I think it’s safe to say this wasn’t the original title, but who am I to turn an “F” down, even if for the first half-an-hour, it’s merely extremely poor 70’s kung-fu fodder. Only when Angel and her team of female warriors enter the scene do things perk up a bit, though the story never gets beyond wearisome revenge despite a hefty body-count. The “lady” bit of the title is easily the most accurate, since their numbers vary wildly, and it’s hard to take the “venom” part seriously after seeing them train: the bikinis are okay, it’s the swimming caps which are difficult to accept. Entire scenes are thrown in for no reason, making it the sort of movie where you can doze off without missing much; odds are you will, with kung-fu which reaches average on occasion. While rating well for sheer quantity of female action heroines, once you get beyond Angel herself, the quality leaves way too much to be desired. D

G is for Girlfight (Karyn Kusama) 
“Prove them wrong.”
This world is filled with many examples of violence,  and nothing works better than violence with a purpose. Diana Guzman’s violent world breeds school dropouts, juvenile delinquents and substance abuse, crooked low-lives who couldn’t find a straight path if it were handed to them on a silver platter. Instead of succumbing to that lifestyle, she finds an outlet in the gym, as the only girl boxer, and develops confidence in her abilities, becoming a force to be reckoned with. Michelle Rodriguez plays Diana, and has probably the most intense gaze I’ve ever seen; she looks tough and I certainly wouldn’t want her mad at me. I enjoyed the gritty, realistic view of life and the ethnicity; the background dialogue is excellent, despite the director not having a trace of Latino in her, though this may be less apparent to viewers not raised in that atmosphere. I was also awed by the boxing scenes: I backed up a couple of times to avoid getting hit by the power punches. Still, a strong, impressive and motivating film, especially for a first-time director, and many first-time actors as well as a tiny budget. This is definitely not Rocky. It’s all about the amateur world and their dreams. Of taking the violence to a different level. And mastering it. [Chris Fata]

H is for Heavy Metal 2000 (Michael Coldewey + Michel Lemire) 
“How do you ‘lose’ a six-foot bitch with a talking rock?”
The problem with this film is that it hasn’t realised that things have moved on since the original: after fifteen years of anime, breasts and blood are no longer sufficient in themselves, and too much of the story is hackneyed cliché, borrowing equally from bad SF, and bad martial arts films of the “You killed my father…” school. Mixing good CGI and poor cel animation in an uneasy blend of styles, it pits Julie Strain (who provides her character’s name, voice and figure model) against Michael Ironside (voice only, I presume!), after the latter does the parental-murder thing as part of his quest for immortality. There’s enough here to keep you just about interested, with both Strain and Ironside putting in worthy effort. However, the rock soundtrack works better as a CD than as an accompaniment, and they should have spent more time on the script, instead of animating Strain’s breasts. Replacing the anthology approach of the original with one solid lump, was only ever going to work if the story was a good one. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. D+

I is for I Spit On Your Corpse (Al Adamson)
“They’re dying to love her!”
Originally known as Girls For Rent, the new title and tag-line conceal a decent little film from Adamson (who’d end up buried beneath a jacuzzi), and an excellent performance from hardcore icon Georgina Spelvin as Sandra, a nasty thug broken out of prison to act as an  enforcer for a mob boss. With slightly-less brutal  associate Erica (Rosalind Miles), she has to hunt down a fleeing murder witness. Save the lack of huge breasts, it’s reminiscent of something like Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, with a similar white-trash aesthetic and cruel females: Spelvin and Tura Satana could be cousins. The main weaknesses are a tame ending and long spells when there isn’t a great deal happening; Adamson doesn’t have the skill to make mundane but necessary exposition interesting. However, Spelvin and Miles are a good couple, the former rejoicing in cruelty to an extent that certainly put me off seeing The Devil in Miss Jones. C

J is for Joan of Arc (Luc Besson) 
“Let’s go torture the bitch!”
With too many dodgy accents, both English and French, and a lead actress from the “deer caught in headlights” school, this wants to be Braveheart but ends up nearer Holy Grail territory. There’s a desperate lack of character: Messrs Malkovich, West and Hoffman do well, but their roles are tiny, and you’re too often left with nothing but interchangeable blokes in armour. As portrayed by Milla Jovovich, Joan herself comes over as little more than a religious loony, and while the battle scenes are undeniably impressive, with some excellent exploding heads, you’re left with little or no understanding of how this girl could command armies. Sadly, no better than the recent TVM with Leela Sobieski – clearly Equity rules demand Joan can only be played by amusingly-named actresses. Luc Besson has worked with both children and animals before, to good effect, but it seems that his (now ex-) missus was a bitch too far. D

K is for Killing Time (Bharat Nalluri)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Nikitas
British action heroines are a rare breed; Helena Bonham-Carter is far more comfortable with a parasol than a pistol. Which may be why the hit-woman here is Italian; those hot-blooded continentals, you know. The Newcastle location pays tribute to the classic Get Carter, and the set-up is elegant: cop Craig  Fairbrass hires the assassin to kill the psycho who  tortured his partner, but can’t afford to pay her. So he orders four thugs to do her after she’s finished; unluckily, they’re complete incompetents, vague on the meaning of “after”, and her hotel bedroom soon looks like a mortuary as she waits, with her Linguaphone English tape, for her target’s return. The action is pretty lame; for once, that doesn’t matter; the black humour is what makes this work. Fairbrass, veteran of some truly dreadful movies, is too bland, but the cast are generally excellent, even Kendra Torgan as the assassin, who gets few English words. Obviously cheap, but cheerful and quirky, it beats Notting Hill, any day. B-

L is for Lady Ninja (Masuru Tsushima)
A load of balls…
The plot here is fairly generic: a Japanese shogun wants to get rid of some potentially embarrassing enemies, so unleashes the four titular babes on them. And, indeed, the acting is dead straight and po-faced, with everyone taking it very seriously. The exception is a narrator who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different movie, or perhaps Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, it’s almost as if someone also let said narrator loose on the script for twenty minutes, because odd sequences are well beyond odd, and can only be described as bizarre. The ladies’ special attacks, for example, which include the vaginal squirting of coloured balls, and the firing of breast milk – needless to say, this leads to far more nudity than is strictly necessary for an otherwise traditional swordplay pic. Moments like these will keep you watching, but only once, and beyond the pure shock value, there is insufficient imagination, or indeed content of any kind, to make it worth a permanent place on the video shelf. D

M is for Model By Day (Christian Duguay)
…and a severely daft costume by night
As mentioned last time, Famke Janssen was one of the best Bond girls of recent years; here, she gets the lead as a supermodel who turns vigilante after her flat-mate is assaulted. Sporting a remarkably silly-looking costume (you’d think a catwalk girl would have better dress sense), all goes well until someone takes her identity and uses it for nefarious ends. Janssen looks the part (both of them), the Oriental hitman with whom she teams up is nicely laconic – “That’s why I don’t bother with the kung-fu shit” – while Shannon Tweed and Sean Young lurk helpfully in the background. Unfortunately, the action is neither frequent nor well-handled enough to carry the movie, and the fashion world scenes are merely irritating. Clearly hoping for a spin-off series; that it never materialised tells you all you need to know. D-

N is for The Next Karate Kid (Christopher Cain)
“Just monks having fun.”
I have a sneaking regard for this one, which manages to hang on just this side of sickly, despite heavy-handed metaphors including a bird with a broken wing; like Angelina Jolie in Cyborg 2 (see Film Blitz), Hilary Swank would go on to be an Oscar-winner. She is plausible and genuine enough to work as the rough diamond taken in hand by Pat Morita, who resembles Yoda both in English proficiency and fondness for philosophical gems like “Never trust a spiritual leader who can’t dance.” Yet he is far from irritating, and the Buddhist monks who assist him are not as po-faced as they at first seem. Action-wise, there isn’t much until the final confrontation with the bullies who are ruining the heroine’s life – not to mention that of her wimpy boyfriend – under the control of Michael Ironside, warming up his character for Starship Troopers. This is more about the philosophy of violence rather the act itself: on that basis, it proves to be effective without ever over-moralising. B-

O is for Operation Pink Squad (Jeff Lau)
“You robbing a bank or starting a war?”
In common with some of his other films, such as The Eagle Shooting Heroes, Lau tries to cover all the bases here, with lowbrow comedy, action, romance and drama all significantly represented. The results vary from good to painful, in what is inevitably a very busy movie. The titular squad are a bunch of female policewomen who get hurled at cases in the hope they’ll screw up and can be fired: the main focus here is surveillance of a blind musician who may be holding stolen diamonds. One of the cops (again, inevitably) falls in love with him, but who is using who? As the film progresses, Lau tones down the comedic aspects – to good effect, with a couple of excellent set-pieces and a finale which is actually hugely bleak, in contrast to much of what’s gone before. Credit to Sandra Ng as the cop torn between duty and devotion, who handles even the dumb humour with good grace. C+

P is for Prisoner Maria: The Movie (Shuji Kataoka)
“I am God!”
Another Nikita clone, this Japanese series turned Maria from a jailbird into a hit-woman, albeit a kinder, gentler assassin who only does it because the government has her kid. Starting with her hunting a politician’s serial-killer son, this spirals off into roughly equal parts of organised crime and mad science, the latter being the source of the above quote. The action is competent, with Maria’s fight against a Triad boss particularly good; it’s a lively little film, and the effort put in means there’s usually interesting stuff going on. Heroine Noriko Aota’s short and/or tight costumes should tide most viewers over the other bits… C+

Q is for Queen of Swords
“Let’s see who she is!”
The new season of shows in the States include a couple which could fit in here – foremost is probably Dark Angel, which has the tech-noir you’d expect from a James Cameron-produced show. Looking less secure is QoS: the track record for action series set in the past is wobbly, for every Xena there’s a Sinbad. And just as New Zealand stands in for ancient Greece, a lot of the North American-set QoS is shot in Spain, a process assisted by good exchange rates. The results so far have been mediocre. Comparisons to Mask of Zorro are inevitable; early episodes even use the same “secret mine” plot. The action is poor and, while Tessie Santiago cuts a dash, her mask is so minimal, she’d be better disguised with a thong on her head  How long it will be before the producers have to adopt this approach, only time will tell.

R is for Robot Wars: RoboCHIC vs. Running Delilah
“It isn’t that men necessarily think women are their inferior, it’s just how badly they behave when they encounter one who might be their equal. “
RoboCHIC (Ed Hansen + Jeff Mandel) parodies the robotic-crime fighter genre, best known through the itself-satirical Robocop; this works well for the first half, before running out of steam and descending to the tedious heroics it had previously skewered effectively. Burt Ward plays a nerdy terrorist (one demand is “I want girls to like me”) who finds his atom bombs taken over by far worse bad guys. Only RoboCHIC (Kathy Shower) and her amazing android superpowers can save the day. Nice touches include everyone getting their skills from ‘How to…’ manuals, and Ward’s nervous bomb warning while a line of cops behind him wait for the phone. Special praise to Rita Considine as bimbocaster Bambi Doe, but a bland hero and irritating scientist slow things down terribly and the great promise drains away to very little.

In Running Delilah (Richard Franklin), Kim Cattrall is the titular government agent, brought back to life – or a mostly cyber-version thereof – after being shot by arms dealers. Billy Zane has to coax her through the trauma and turn her into an even more effective resource, in a cross between The Bionic Woman and Nikita. While this takes a while to get going – the best part of an hour before she’s sent on her first mission – Cattrall is good, and you get an idea of the angst incurred when you discover three-quarters of your body isn’t you any more. Its origin as a TV movie is always apparent, however, both with the limitation on how tough it gets (check out the modesty patches during the operation!), and the obvious advert breaks. Plenty of production values help this bounce pleasantly enough along though. C- and C.

S is for Sweet Justice (Allen Plone)
“Seven. Magnificent…”
Plays like it ought to star Cynthia Rothrock, with Finn Carter (the heroic geologist of Tremors) riding into town to find the truth behind her sister’s death, when sheriff Marc Singer (of Beastmaster fame, doing a convincing Kevin Bacon impression) refuses to investigate. She contacts her former army babe buddies, including Kathleen Kinmont, who are now working in jobs ranging from lawyer to go-go dancer, and take on the bad guys. As alleged former special forces soldiers, they’re extremely unconvincing, and the first half is relentlessly talky. The martial arts range from adequate to pretty good, however, and there’s certainly no shortage of action, once it starts, even if poor editing wrecks the fluidity. The plot is unoriginal – I resorted to picking my toenails – and there’s not a vast amount of acting to keep you going until things pick up on the fisticuff front. Adequate, and only barely. D+

T is for Terminator Woman (Michael Qissi) –
“I am not unoriginal! I’ll have a vodka martini, shaken not stirred.”
Having seen Karen Shephard giving fine support to Cynthia Rothrock, it’s good to see her getting a movie of her own, and this isn’t too bad. She and Jerry Trimble play cops sent to South Africa with a witness vital to bringing down crime lord Gatelee (played by director Qissi). The obvious sexual tension angle is fortunately played down, as Sheperd has to fight her way out of the bush after being captured, while Trimble tries to break in from the other side of things. This all builds exactly to what you’d expect – two climaxes, Trimble vs. Qissi, and Sheperd vs. the delightfully evil Ashley Hayden. If the cross-cutting between the two fights does leave things a bit disjointed, there’s no shortage of action overall, and everyone seems to be fully committed to giving of their best. C+

U is for Undercover: Martial Law 2 (Kurt Anderson)
“Some would call it impossible. They call it martial law”
And lo, from pseudo-Cynthias at S+T, to the real thing, as for the second time, our ‘U’ movie stars Ms. Rothrock, enough to override qualms over whether this is really an M… She performs pretty well here, though the likes of Jeff Wincott and Billy Drago aren’t exactly competition in the acting stakes. Wincott and her are former partners who uncover departmental corruption linked to a night-club chain; while he gets attacked repeatedly, she gets a job in the bar and, actually, does a far better investigative job. There’s not much to remember here, save perhaps for Rothrock’s fights being surprisingly brutal, with more limb-snapping than you’d expect. I was looking forward to her facing off against the villain’s female bodyguard at the end, and was sadly disappointed – most of her final opponents seem to hurl themselves off high places in lemming-like fashion. D-

V is for Vendetta (Bruce Logan)
“Did it bring Bonnie back? You have the rest of your life to think about that.”
I was torn whether this one should go into the women-in-prison piece, but the alternative was V.I.Warshawski. And despite the shower scene, sex-crazed guard and other staples of the WiP genre, it has more in common with the likes of Death Wish, as stunt-woman Laurie Collins (Karen Chase) gets sent to jail to take on the scum who killed her sister. If you can get past the heroine’s huge hair, which effortlessly nails this down as mid-80’s, it’s effective, backed by good supporting performances from genre stalwarts such as Roberta Collins, and with the odd surreal moment of beauty – Logan was cinematographer on Tron. It’s interesting to see Collins fall apart as her revenge destroys her too, with the ending being somewhat uncomfortable. Trivia note: all-girl group the Screaming Sirens chalk up a second WiP assist, their cameo adding to their appearance on the Reform School Girls soundtrack. B

W is for Witchblade (Ralph Hemecker)
“Use it or lose it.”
This long-running comic series from Top Cow, loved by hormonal teenage boys everywhere, has been somewhat de-mammaried for this filmic incarnation, in which Yancy Butler becomes the latest in a long line of women owned by a gauntlet with mysterious (but largely cool) powers. I use “owned by” advisedly: it seems far more aware than her of what’s going on, as she looks for those who killed…well, pretty much everyone she’s ever known by the end of the film. Visually, it’s good, with effective little touches and nods to other films, such as borrowing music from Run Lola Run, a movie whose hyper-kinetic style it sometimes also uses. Butler is pretty good, but it feels less a film than a TV pilot, concerned more with setting the scene than any story of its own beyond the painfully evident. If a series does materialise, however, the potential is certainly there. B-

X is for X-Men (Bryan Singer)
and the X-Women.
Though no more than a cheerful popcorn muncher – where’s the threat when the hero can repair any damage to his body? – X-Men was notable from the action babe point of view. It provides no less than four superheroines for us to enjoy – this kind of equal opportunity quota I can deal with. Here’s the TC report-card on the four-pack, in Miss World styled, reverse-order:

  • Rogue (Anna Paquin) – the Jar-Jar Binks of the film, there to appeal to the kids. Seems perpetually on the edge of bursting into tears. D-
  • Storm (Halle Berry) – controls the weather, though never does anything particularly interesting with it. Michael Fish in a blond wig. D+
  • Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) – good, no-nonsense attitude. Moves things with her mind, so could have ripped Magneto’s still-beating heart from his chest. But where’s the challenge in that? C+
  • Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) kicks butt in a variety of forms, blue-hued and more regular. Excellent fight with Wolverine. R-S is now filming the Rollerball remake, under John McTiernan. You go, girl… A-

Y is for Yes Madam 5 (Lau Shing) –
“Damn your pee!”
Christ, this is dreadful. It may be the worst Hong Kong film I’ve ever had to endure – it’s certainly the worst of Cynthia Khan’s career, despite her treating the material with far more seriousness than it deserves. She is Lydia Lee, leader of the A-Team, whose boyfriend stumbles across the Filofax belonging to an evil crime boss, who is hugely keen to get it back. A reasonable set-up for an action flick – but this is a comedy, thanks to the presence of the Crap Physical Comedy family, for whom no vegetable, piece of underwear or Samantha Fox poster is too low for comic mugging. The villain also plays for laughs, a ginger-eyebrowed loon called Brian with painted-faced henchmen, and there is precisely one funny moment – a drug deal staged as if by the Peking Opera. Ignore the cover which promises much Cynthia and much action. Wrong on both counts, you will be praying for death before half-way. E

Z is for Zero Woman: Assassin Lover (Masahide Kuwabara)
Heroic bloodshed dark chocolate, with a cherry-liqueur centre.
This is the third entry in the Zero Woman series, and it does go counter to our earlier reported assertion regarding part threes, since it represents a significant advance over the first couple. There is a pleasing symmetricality about the plot, which sees the characters divided into those who want female assassin Rei (Kumiko Takeda) dead, and those who want to keep her alive. The former include Rei herself, and villain Daidohja, while in the latter camp may be found her boss, and Katsumura, the counter-assassin hired by Daidohja. The two assassins end up working together as their respective bosses struggle to control them, with somewhat variable results, shall we say. Takeda is excellent, and the film has a murky and sweaty intensity which helps it to stand on its own, without knowledge of the previous entries. Oh, and as for the cherry-liqueur…this is the kind of Japanese film where, when people get shot, they don’t so much bleed as gush… B