Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Escape From New York (1981)

Snake is a bad motherfucker

Escape From New York
is the kind of action film they just don't make anymore. The plot is spare but tight and well told, there's long action-free stretches that build atmosphere and tension, it's got a bleak, nihilistic tone, it's got a moody synthesizer score... basically it's a John Carpenter film, and one of his better ones too.

It's the far-flung year of 1997, and the level of crime in New York City has got so bad that the government just said "Fuck it!" and built a wall around it. All hardened criminals get dumped there and left to fight it out. The idea of walling off a city and turning it into a free-range prison doesn't make a whole lot of sense (at least do it in a place no-one will miss, like Detroit) but Carpenter pulls it off. Inside it's kind of like The Warriors, with burnt out buildings and graffiti and gimmicky gangs. This nightmarish slum is presided over by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who rides around in a limo with chandeliers hanging from it and lives in the New York Public Library. I don't think he reads much, though.

This is all well and good, but unfortunately Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists and President Donald Pleasance's escape pod is jettisoned right into the heart of Manhattan. He is held hostage by the Duke, and he needs to play an audio tape at a worldwide summit in the next 24 hours or else it will trigger a World War, or something. Luckily the infamous criminal (seriously, everybody on the inside knows who he is) Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is just about to be sent into the prison after a botched robbery. He is made an offer by the chief security officer (Lee Van Cleef!), if he rescues the President within the next 24 hours, all of his charges will be dropped. Snake is distrustful, but figures he's going to prison either way, so what the hell. As an added incentive they inject him with some explosive capsules that will bust his carotid arteries wide open if he's not back in time.

He pilots a glider onto the World Trade Center and once he's inside he is helped out by former partner-in-crime Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). Ernest Borgnine also plays a crazy cab driver and provides the few moments of levity in the film (aside from Snake's quips). Snake gets put in a deathmatch with a huge hairy wrestler dude, gets double-crossed once or twice, and it's ends with a literally explosive chase across the 69th street bridge. He even manages to deliver a final "Fuck you!" to The Man once his mission is complete. Because that's how Snake rolls, bitches.

The computery bits look dated and the models look pretty fake, but everything else looks great. It's all dark and grimy and oppressive, the whole movie takes place at night, which is weird because it's supposed to be over 24 hours (I think Snake is unconscious for a lot of that, though). It's a lot of fun seeing the landmarks like the NY Public Library turned into a gang hideout, or the Statue of Liberty turned into a guard tower. It's also eerie seeing the NYC skyline at night with no lights (made moreso by the World Trade Center still standing tall). Plus, Snake Plissken is such a fantastic character. There's obviously a lot of Clint Eastwood stoicism in there, but he doesn't seem quite as invincible, sometimes surviving by sheer luck and determination. I love the commentary tracks for Kurt Russell/John Carpenter films, because they always sound like they are best buds and had a great time making the film, and here it's obvious that Russell loved playing the character.

Snake returned in Escape from L.A., which is basically the same movie in a different location, only cheesier and more cartoony and full of bad CGI and also shitty. I don't know if this is John Carpenter's best film, but it's real good. Both this film and Mad Max would inspire dozens of copycats over next decade or so, but nothing would match them.

Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) (1981)

Post-apocalyptic fashion is fucked up. And awesome.

This film opens exactly the way it should, with Max screaming down the highway in his Interceptor, pursued by punks in a dune buggy. Not only is an awesome car chase, but there's no dialogue for first ten minutes or so, except for battle cries and screaming. Actually, I lie, it really opens with a bit of narration, explaining how the world ended up as such a dog's breakfast. Frankly I don't think this was necessary, George Miller creates such a rich and involving world, you don't really need to know why it is the way it is.

Max isn't a cop anymore, and seems pretty content to chase people down so he can steal their fuel, so he can chase people down etc. Quite a cycle of dependency he's got himself into. In one part Max is opening a can of dog food and his dog looks up hungrily, but Max gulps it down like it's a gourmet meal. People are reduced to eating dog food but they're still fighting over petrol, (they use the word "gasoline" for the American audience's sake but it's set in Australia, so fuck it, it's petrol) and it's one part of the film that really rings true to me. People's priorities really are that fucked up.

Anyway, after this confrontation he comes across this crazy gyro pilot (Bruce Spence), who leads him to a compound where they are refining petrol. He is trying to decide how to rob them when he witnesses a group of raiders attack a vehicle when it tries to cross the wasteland. They critically wound the guy and rape and murder his wife. When Max carries the dying man back to the compound he announces that he was promised some petrol as a reward. So yeah, he's not exactly heroic. Unfortunately for Max, the guy dies before he can collect so instead he is held prisoner for a while and gets caught in the middle of their battle with the raiders. It should be noted that one of the guys in the compound is played by veteran Australian character actor Syd Heylen. I like to imagine he's Cookie from A Country Practice, who managed to escape Wanden Valley before it was consumed by nuclear fire (Bob, unfortunately, didn't make it). So the leader of the raiders gives them two options: Leave the compound and everything in it and their lives will be spared, or stay and die. They decide to make a break for it with their tanker of petrol, but they want Max to drive. He doesn't want to help them, but then the raiders shoot his dog and blow up his car so he changes his mind.

So yeah, it's a simple story of redemption, but it's got such great and memorable characters it doesn't need a complex plot. You've got the gyro pilot who rears poisonous snakes and wears yellow tights. You've got Wez (Vernon Wells), the crazed punk with a male sex slave chained to his motorcycle. You've got the "Ayatollah of Rock'n'Rolla" himself, the Humungous (Kjell Nilsson), who looks like a post-apocalyptic S&M Jason Voorhees. With these films George Miller basically defined the template for post-apocalyptic fashion, outfits comprised of leather and chains and scavenged sports equipment. Don't know how they style all those mohawks though, maybe they raided a tanker full of hair gel. The cars are the kind of awesome junkpiles you can imagine nomadic scavengers putting together, full of jury rigged armour and metal spikes and stuff.

There's also the feral kid. Now, this is one of the rare instances of a kid sidekick that doesn't make my want to puke out my intestines. That's probably because he only speaks in grunts and growls and likes to dismember people with a bladed boomerang. He hangs out with Max and saves his ass during the climax, but thank Christ the kid doesn't teach him how to love or anything like that. The closest thing to an emotional connection between the two is when Max gives him a music box, and he doesn't have tears welling up in his eyes or anything, he looks like he doesn't really give a shit. He even gets the kid to crawl onto the hood of a moving truck to retrieve some shotgun shells. The hero risking a kid's life, that's not something you see in most films.

Of course it ends with one of the best car chases ever made, over fifteen minutes long. Watching a dozen crazy vehicles zipping to and fro and fearless stuntmen leaping all over the place, I realised that there's no way they'd do a scene like this anymore. It's just too complicated and dangerous. They'd ruin it by filling it full of quick cuts and shakycams and computer generated bits where you travel through the gearshift, down through the engine and out the exhaust like in The Fast and the Furious. And you can forget all the dangerous stunts, it's far easier to have actors sitting in front of a green screen and let the computer guys fill it all in with ones and zeros. Anyways, George Miller really knows how to crash some vehicles. Then they had to crap it all up with towns fueled by pig shit and Tina Turner, but whatever.

Post Apocalyptia

I was really excited about Doomdsay. Post-apocalyptic punks riding around on dune buggies? Written and directed by Neil Marshall, the director of Descent (best horror film of 2005) and Dog Soldiers (my fourth favourite werewolf film of all time)? Have they been reading my secret wish diary? Of course it got released and everybody hated it. Even though it's currently flopping in theaters worldwide, no Australian release date is forthcoming. Who knows if it will ever get released, but to prepare I watched the two films it rips off most thoroughly: Mad Max 2 and Escape From New York. They'll probably place the deficiencies of Doomsday in stark relief (and according to critics there are many), but it did remind me how great those two films are, and exactly why they were so influential.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 (1987)

"Garbage day!"

Silent Night, Deadly Night was a competent if unremarkable slasher. Apparently the sequel was intended to be more of a simple re-cut, with a few minutes of extra footage, but it ballooned into something much, much worse. I considered lumping the review of the second film in with the first, for reasons that will become clear, but it ended up too damn long, plus this film has enough koo-koo-crazy moments to deserve it's own post.

It opens with Billy's brother Ricky, who has now grown into a concrete slab of a man (Eric Freeman) being interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Henry Bloom (James Newman). During the interview, Ricky recaps the events of the first film, a process that consists mainly of narrated footage from the first film and takes over 30 minutes.

Ricky starts with the whole Santa Claus murdering his parents story from the first film. Anticipating the audience's reaction, the psychiatrist asks how he could possibly recall events that took place when he was a newborn infant. He responds with "I was there, wasn't I?!" (he overacts so broadly that everything he says merits an exclamation point) which doesn't clarify things. To further puzzlement, he then has flashbacks to events he wasn't even present for. A few random facts have been changed for no apparent reason eg the man dressed as Santa Claus who was accidentally shot by police is now Old Man Kelsey the janitor instead of Father O'Brian.

After the first film has been thoroughly plundered of all interesting footage, Ricky starts recapping his life story post-Billy. After his brother was killed, the orphanage was shut down and Ricky was taken in by the Rosenbergs. You couldn't ask for a better family for a kid who is traumatised by Christmas, I guess. Unfortunately, Ricky also suffers from a fear of nuns (nunophobia) and goes into post-traumatic shock whenever he sees the colour red. After his step-father dies, his insanity starts bubbling to the surface. He witnesses some dude attempting (and failing) to rape some woman, so he runs the dude over about a dozen times in his own car. She thanks him, which seems like a strange reaction since she didn't seem hugely upset about his attempted rape moments before. He also murders some loan shark in an alley for some reason, impaling him with an umbrella and then opening it for the coup de grĂ¢ce.

One day while heading, I assume, to a 50s themed costume party, some girl Jennifer (Elizabeth Kaitan) backs into his motorcycle, prompting girlish giggles and the beginnings of a relationship. Ricky manages to keep his murderous urges under wraps at first, until some noisy jerk at a movie theater tips him over the edge. He murders the guy right there in the theater (nobody notices, or if they do then they don't care). It should be noted that they are there watching Silent Night, Deadly Night, which brings up all kinds of logical paradoxes I don't even want to think about.

While Ricky is busy murdering, Jennifer is harassed by Chip, some preppy asshole ex-boyfriend with terrible bleached hair. During a walk through a suburban neighbourhood they run into Chip again, and after a brief argument Rick electrocutes him with jumper leads until his eyes explode. Afterwards his girlfriend gets mouthy so he strangles her with a car aerial. This prompts the appearance of the most unprofessional cop ever. Stealing his gun and killing him, Ricky goes on a rampage, shooting everybody he comes across. He hilariously shouts "Garbage day!" before gunning down a fellow holding a garbage can. He also shoots a car in the radiator which causes it to flip over (props to the stunt double who stood mere centimeters from the flipping vehicle) and explode in an impressive fireball. Cornered by cops, he attempts suicide but finds himself out of ammunition.

Thus ends his series of flashbacks. Having murdered the psychiatrist, he escapes from the mental facility with the aim of killing the Mother Superior. She is a little worse for wear after the first film. She has had a stroke which has left one side of her face a morass of scar tissue as well as turning her into a completely different actor (Jean Miller). She has retired and lives alone but she still wears her habit. I guess old habits are hard to... oh, fuck it. Somehow Ricky tracks her down and starts chasing her around her house. At one point she is dumped from her wheelchair and tossed down the stairs. Not only is she okay, but apparently she keeps a spare wheelchair downstairs for just such an occasion! Anyway, Sister Mary shows up with a policeman but are they too late to save the Mother Superior? Yes, yes they are. Ricky gets blasted through a window by gunfire, but lest we think a sequel is an impossibility, he pops his eyes open just before the credits roll.

If the 30 minutes of recycled footage wasn't enough to sink the film, Eric Freeman's performance doesn't just sink it, it blows the sunken wreck to pieces with a depth charge. He snarls every line as if someone were holding a gun to his head shouting "Crazier! CRAZIER!" Maybe that's how director Lee Harry works, I don't know. Although it ruins the film as horror, his delivery of some of the lines is comedy gold. Probably not funny enough to sit through the film, though.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


The huge success of Halloween inspired a wave of holiday-themed slashers, all keen to ape it's success. These included Happy Birthday to Me, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Mother's Day and, of course, Friday the 13th (and cheekily parodied by Eli Roth in his phony Thanksgiving trailer for Grindhouse). Despite the fact that it was not the first slasher film to feature a murderous Santa Claus, and certainly not the first Christmas themed slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night developed quite a bit of controversy in it's day. Showings were protested by angry mothers and Siskel and Ebert went so far as to read out the credits on air, following each name with "shame, shame, shame". It was pulled a few weeks after release. Such a response might be warranted if it featured Jolly Old Saint Nick decapitating rosy-cheeked cherubs with an axe. I'd certainly see it. Instead it's the far more prosaic psycho-killer wearing an ill-fitting Saint Nick outfit and killing fornicating teenagers formula we've seen many times before.

This film takes the less traveled and far more interesting route of focusing mainly on the killer. You may think you've had the worst Christmas ever. Maybe your uncle got drunk and threw up on the Christmas turkey. Maybe you never got that sixth Constructicon (Bonecrusher) even though you specifically asked for it because you have the other five Constructicons and now you can't make Devastator. But brother, spare a thought for poor Billy Chapman. Firstly his parents leave him alone with his supposedly comatose grandfather, who springs to life (it's a Christmas miracle!) and tells Billy that Santa Claus dishes out severe punishment to naughty boys and girls and that, should he hear approaching sleigh bells, he should run for his life. If that isn't enough to warp his conception of Saint Nick, on the drive home his parents are murdered by a carjacker dressed as Santa Claus.

Billy and his baby brother Ricky are placed in probably the only Catholic orphanage in Utah. Understandably, Billy is a little disturbed come Christmas time, but Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) isn't having any of that, dishing out tough love as only a crotchety old nun and a stiff leather belt can deliver. She tries to get Billy to sit on Santa's lap, but, fueled by crazy-strength, Billy bloodies his nose with a haymaker that knocks him out of his chair. Somebody get that kid a boxing scholarship! His sexual attitudes are further warped by Mother Superior, who whips him good for spying on a fornicating couple, denouncing the couple as "very naughty".

Despite the fact that nobody else seems to age, Billy grows into a strapping 18 year old (Robert Bryan Wilson), and the kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) gets him a job at a toy store. Probably not the best place to be working for someone with a morbid fear of Santa Claus, but she means well. Billy proves himself as a capable employee in the happiest musical montage you ever did see, but when the boss unfurls the first Christmas banner of the season, Billy's face becomes a mask of smouldering rage. His attitude gets worse and worse as the holiday approaches, but reaches boiling point when he is forced to fill in for a colleague and don a Santa Claus costume.

To make things worse, a girl he has the hots for (dreams of Santa-appointed punishment prevent him from making a move) starts making out with a prick of a co-worker during the office Christmas party. When he stumbles across her being raped in the stockroom, his mind snaps like a cheap candy cane. It's punishment time! Billy garrotes him with some Christmas lights, setting a nice festive tone, but sadly moves on to the pedestrian claw hammer, Stanley knife and (surprisingly functional) toy bow and arrow to dispatch his other co-workers.

After similarly punishing two fornicating teenagers, he runs across a little girl. After she promises that she has not been naughty all year (liar!), he presents her with a slightly used Stanley knife. Merry Christmas, little girl! Billy also decapitates a sled-stealing bully mid-ride, causing his headless corpse to come sliding down the slope and his head tumbling after.

Meanwhile the cops don't know what to do, arresting every Santa Claus in the state. Sister Margaret tells the cops that Billy is going to head back to the orphanage, for some reason. They are convinced, and some overzealous cops even gun down a man dressed as Santa Claus in front of the terrified orphans. Unfortunately it's just Father O'Brian, distributing presents to the children. Whoops! Eventually Billy does return, and he is riddled with bullets, moments before he brings the axe down on Mother Superior's head. These kids are going to have issues, having Santa Claus gunned down before their eyes twice in one day. In the standard sequel-happy ending, Billy's brother Ricky menacingly denounces Mother Superior as "naughty".

I was pretty disappointed with Billy's catch cry of "Punish!". Think of all the Christmas puns that went unused: "I think I hear SLAY bells", (brandishing a knife) "I've got something to stick in your stocking" etc. But I guess this isn't that kind of movie, trying to go for the sympathetic, Maniac-type killer. I don't know about that, but at least you go "man, that kid's gonna be fucked up" a few times. I guess that's good enough.

It's not ridiculously gory, but there's enough to satiate the gorehounds. There's also a lot of nudity, if you're the kind of person who needs titillation with your bloodletting. There's two instances of tops being torn off in the context of a rape, which I find unpleasant, but one girl (played, naturally, by Linnea Quigley) goes out searching for her cat while wearing nothing but a pair of tiny Daisy Dukes. That's the kind of naughty I can get behind! Actually, this film goes further than most slashers in conflating sex with naughtiness, at least where women are concerned.

After all of the controversy and hype surrounding this movie (the front of the box claims, in bold letters: "The film they didn't want you to see!"), it turns out to be a fairly standard 80s slasher. Arguably in poor taste, but what decent horror film isn't? It's not good enough to be frightening, but not bad enough to provide that "what were they thinking?" feeling (for that you've got to turn to the sequels). I liked the fact that they focused on the killer rather than some spam in a cabin, though. If you were having a night of Christmas-themed slashers, I'd put this one on towards the end of the evening, once people are good and drunk.

Friday, 25 April 2008

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007)

Jason Statham as a medieval kung fu master? Only in an Uwe Boll film

I'm what you might call a Boll fan. His movies are terrible obviously, but it warms my heart to see that in this age of bloated, glossy Hollywood blockbusters, such consistently terrible low-budget films can still see cinematic release. There's a lot of comparison to Ed Wood, and I can see why. He really thinks he is making good films. But then he goes on youtube and calls himself the "only genius in the whole fucking business", and I wonder if his pride is all just a PR stunt.

My first taste of Boll was House of the Dead, a film that was so terrible I woke up the next morning wondering if it was all just a dream. Surely the film didn't have gameplay footage spliced into action sequences? It was like glimpsing into the mind of a madman. Since then I've eagerly awaited each Boll film. Well, not enough to pay for a ticket, but I've watched them on DVD. Which brings us to In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.

While I was under no illusion that this film was going to be good (I'd seen the trailer) I was scared that it would be mediocre, which is even worse. I needn't have worried. All of Boll's signature touches are present and accounted for. The lousy scene transitions, the contempt for basic storytelling and laughable dialogue, he even manages to one-up the ridiculous cast of Bloodrayne. Just look at this: Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Leelee Sobieski, Ron Perlman, Claire Forlani, Kristanna Loken, John Rhys-Davies, Mathew Lillard and Burt fucking Reynolds as the titular king. What the fuck? Did Boll go to an awards ceremony and just start firing wildly into the crowd with a tranquiliser gun? They actors woke up on a cheap set somewhere in Canada with Boll waving incriminating photos in their face. Most of these guys are not even phoning it in, they're getting their personal assistant to send a text message: "Ths is my prfrmnce ok :-)"

The film opens with Leelee Sobieski making googly eyes in bed with Ray Liotta (ew). She is Muriella, the daughter of magus Merrick (Rhys-Davies), and is receiving forbidden magical instruction from evil sorceror Gallian (Liotta). Gallian is amassing an army of budget orcs called the "Krugs", and has managed to get the layabout Duke Fallow (Lillard) to side with him against the noble King Konreid (Reynolds), with aims to overthrow the kingdom.

Meanwhile Farmer (Statham) is busy farming (duh) with his wife (Forlani) and blonde moppet of a son. Lord-of-the-Rings-ish pan-pipe music plays so we know they are living a happy, simple life, but his world is thrown into turmoil when their peaceful village falls victim to a Krug attack. His son is killed and wife kidnapped, so he, along with his buddy Norick (Ron Perlman) and brother-in-law Legolas, uh, I mean Bastian (Will Sanderson) set out to rescue them.

Eventually Farmer teams up with the leader of a band of Cirque du Soleil forest nymphs named Elora (Kristanna Loken). Says she "Those who you fight, we will help you fight them." Solid gold. There's a couple of "epic" battles that aren't too terrible, although I spotted a couple of instances of reused footage. Like much of the film, they have a Direct-to-Video quality about them.

Gallian has the unexplained ability to inhabit the body of his Krug generals, which is shown in a manner similar to when Frodo wears the ring. He also engages Merrick in a telekinetic sword fight where they just stand there as swords fly around (thrilling!). Anyway Fallow tries to betray King Konreid but gets his just desserts, Farmer learns that his life is meant for greater things than farming, and we all walk away a little stupider.

I did notice that some of the fighting looked okay, if poorly shot and a bit too "kung fu" for a fantasy film. Then I noticed Ching Siu-Tung's name in the credits. That explains it. It also kind of explains the non-sequitor appearance of ninjas during a medieval fantasy battle. Not sure whose idea it was to have some Krugs sit in a catapult, set themselves on fire and then launch themselves into the enemy. Probably Boll's.

Like I said, the actors are there to collect a paycheck, but Lillard is particularly over-the-top as the duke. Hip hip huzzah, indeed. Boll's inability to transition a scene means you'll probably be confused at a few points as the film suddenly skips from one place to another, or the music fades out a few seconds before or after a scene is over. Also, someone should tell him that a fade-to-black generally indicates the passage of time, or at least the end of a scene.

This is very much an Uwe Boll film and that's what I like about him. He always manages to leave his stamp on his work and put in a few touches that leave you shaking your head in disbelief. At the end of the day, I'd rather watch that than a slick, soulless Brett Ratner film. Although you're probably better off watching neither.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Locusts

City-slickers the Altons have bought a run down house in Shropshire, hoping that some country living will make a man out of their son David. He seems to be more fond of animals, especially his pet rabbit Bunty, than football or other manly pursuits. That's how furries start. They load up the moving van with all their stuff, including, for some strange reason, an enormous crate of half-rotten imported peaches. If you guess that these peaches are full of insect larvae, then ha! You're wrong. No wait, you're right, sorry about that.

David's mother Sheila isn't happy about the move, and has a hard time adapting to country life. She has a terrible fear of insects (the fact that her son collects them isn't helping matters), and soon after she arrives she is having nightmares about grasshoppers. Seriously, grasshoppers? I understand that they are similar to locusts and it's setting up the mayhem that will follow, but you've got to work pretty hard to make grasshoppers seem scary, and Smith isn't up to the task. Her frequent hysterics are dismissed and belittled by her husband Alan, who feels that the countryside is the best place to be raising their child, and that's that.

Basically, their marriage in on the rocks. She hasn't had an orgasm in years and complicating matters is Pat Emmerton, the stable-owner next door, a blonde bombshell and nymphomaniac to boot. She has had her eye on Alan's bulging trouser-front since they arrived. When Pat's portly husband is killed by locusts, she takes the opportunity to throw herself upon Alan while she's naked in the tub. Hey, we all grieve differently. He does eventually succumb to her advances, at which time she demonstrates the full extent of her horsemanship if you know what I mean (she has sex with him). Such wanton behaviour is punished severely in the Smithiverse, however, and she is later killed in a locust attack. Alan makes up with his wife later, though. They have post-locust-attack sex with their son asleep on the foot of the bed, which I think is pretty wrong. What if he wakes up? He's traumatised enough as it is.

Now, Locusts stowing away in a crate of Pennsylvania Peaches and sweeping through Shropshire (during a drought, naturally) sounds pretty unlikely, but I can go along with it. When they reveal that there is a simultaneous attack by a different species of locusts who have flown in from the mainland, my disbelief is officially resumed. I'm not sure why this secondary attack was introduced, it seems like a pretty clumsy way to raise the stakes. Perhaps to lessen the complicity of the main character, who had been feeling pretty guilty about leaving those insect-ridden peaches lying around. Things play out pretty much as you'd expect. Widespread panic, many horrible deaths and their son sneaks away to find his rabbit at the most inopportune time possible. The locust problem eventually resolves itself in a rather ho-hum manner, with no intervention from the hero or indeed, any humans at all.

The awesome cover might make you think that the book is about flesh-eating locusts, but these are just the regular type, eating crops, wood etc. Towards the end they get desperate and have a bit of a nibble on people, and they do eat a baby at one point, but they're pretty much vegetarians. Most of the deaths are caused by having every available orifice jammed with locusts. To add insult to injury, they'll even eat off your clothes. Stark-nekkers with locusts stuck up your ass, what a way to go. Smith also shows his usual talent at wringing exciting, large scale disasters from unlikely source material, such as a fiery pile-up caused by a road slick with crushed locusts. Several tense scenes owe a lot to The Birds, with people trapped indoors as locusts swarm outside, or being forced to walk through fields of sleepy locusts.

This is a pretty decent animals-on-the-rampage book. Aside from one or two positively Smithian moments, it doesn't get too ridiculous. There's no locusts stripping the flesh from people, leaving skeletons in their wake or anything like that (maybe in Locusts 2). The characters are a little more interesting than usual, in that the hero is a bit of an asshole at times instead of a bland everyman. I don't know how accurate the locust facts are, but it seems quite well researched, even if some of the events are likely to stretch even the most generous limits of believability. All in all, I thought this book was pretty good.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Gymkata (1985)

Kurt Thomas, aided by a medieval pommel horse, unleashes the fury

It was 1985, and director Robert Clouse felt it was time for a new breed of action hero. A slim, 5'5" hero, with a mullet and bad fashion sense. And to complement him, a new kind of film, one that combined the deadliness of martial arts with the fruitiness of spandex and rubber mats. I imagine he then looked down at his coffee table and spotted a dog-eared copy of The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore and the sports section of the newspaper, open to a feature article about Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas. With a hearty cry of "Yakmala!", Gymkata was born. Combining, as the tagline states, the skill of gymastics with the kill of karate, he turned out of a flop that would be cherished/mocked for decades to come.

After an credits sequence of Kurt doing a gymnastics routine in a darkened room (intercut with footage of wild horses) the film opens with a man being chased through the woods by a bunch of ninjas on horseback, led by Zamir (Richard Norton in a furry vest). As the victim attempts to climb across a rope spanning a chasm, he cops an arrow in his back and plummets to his death. He is the latest victim of the Game, an ancient and deadly race that takes place in the fictional country of Parmistan. Any outsider who enters the country must participate, and whoever wins is granted one wish.

So what could Parmistan possibly provide, aside from a lifetime supply of furry hats? Well, it seems that a radar installation in Parmistan would be capable of detecting every other satellite in the sky. Even those on the other side of the planet? That's some location! No outsider has won the game in over 900 years, so naturally the US government want to send in an Olympic gymnast with two months training. Enter Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas) a man with a mullet and a severe lack of charisma. It seems his father disappeared while playing the Game and, determined to discover what happened to him, Jonathan agrees to take part in their plan.

It's montage time! A big black guy teaches him stick fighting, while some Japanese dude teaches how to climb up stairs on his hands, giving us some gratuitous crotch-shots (I wonder how many shots ended up on the cutting room floor because his nuts popped out of his shorts?). The Japanese guy also demonstrates his skill with the kama while blindfolded, which is pretty cool but will never be referred to again (this lack of payoff is a common theme in this film). Also helping Jonathan is Princess Rubali of Parmistan, for some reason. At first she is pretty chilly, mutely whipping out a knife whenever Jonathan gets too close, but he uses his gymnastics skills to put the moves on her, and soon they're making googly eyes at each other during mission briefings.

Soon the two loverbirds are off to Karabal, which, as the film needlessly reminds us three or four times, is on the Caspian Sea. They meet up with their contact, Stork, who shows them a few cool gadgets, but don't get attached to them because they will never be seen again. During a late night stroll, Cabot is attacked by a gang of thugs, which he defeats thanks to an extremely convenient (and pre-chalked) horizontal bar spanning a narrow alleyway. Princess Rubali gets kidnapped and Jonathan initiates a bold daylight rescue. A chase sequence ensues, which is barely decipherable due to poor editing and heavy reuse of footage and locations, and culminates in a car being inexplicably flipped when it hits a pile of empty cardboard boxes.

After a journey down a raging river, the two finally reach Parmistan and are promptly attacked by ninjas. Jonathan unleashes Gymkata, but is defeated by a ninja with a log. When he wakes he is being fondled by a very ugly woman in the Parmistan palace. He is introduced to the other contestants and the Khan of Parmistan explains the rules of the game, but don't bother paying attention because they don't makes any sense and they are consistently broken anyway.

One thing you quickly notice about Parmistan is that the ethnicity of it's inhabitants isn't quite clear. Princess Rubali appears to be South-East Asian while her father, the Khan, looks kind of Jewish. The inhabitants run the gamut from lily-white Caucasian to swarthy Middle-Eastern, and most are clad in turbans and false mustaches. Accents, when present, are completely random. Parmistan is a potpourri of ethnic stereotypes and technologically it appears to be mired somewhere around the middle ages.

In the lead up to the Game, Jonathan also learns than the Khan's right hand man, Zamir, is planning to seize control of Parmistan and marry Princess Rubali. You hear that sound? That's the stakes being raised, my friend! Also a late-entry contestant arrives: Thorg, a behemoth of a man wearing stylin' Wonder Woman bracelets. He takes an immediate dislike to Jonathan, which is understandable.

Pretty soon the game is underway. Jonathan is off to a bad start, immediately clobbered by Thorg just a few meters from the starting line. Keep a look out for the flag ninjas, the poor guys who are reduced to simply holding flags to direct the contestants. You know, this is a job that could easily have been done by a flagpole. Poor flag ninjas. One of the contestants is shot by an arrow as he climbs a rope up a cliff side. Rather than do the same to Jonathan, Zamir takes the baffling approach of lighting the end of the rope on fire, giving him ample time to climb up the cliff before the flames reach him.

Jonathan complains to a flag ninja that Zamir is breaking the rules (apparently you aren't supposed to kill them when they are between "stages") but he is deaf to Jonathan's pleas. Soon they are crossing the gaping chasm from earlier in the film and once again demonstrating his brilliant strategic thinking, Zamir waits until the last minute to cut the rope so Jonathan can escape easily.

Thorg meanwhile, engages one of the other contestants in a bit of fisticuffs. Thorg beats the tar out of him and then chokes him to death with his belt. Jonathan, enraged by the senseless killing of some dude, unleashes Gymkata! Not surprisingly, Jonathan is beaten to a pulp, but remembering the wise words of his master, ducks out of the way of an arrow which skewers Thorg.

And now, the best part of the movie... the Village of the Crazies! You see, Parmistan has an interesting approach to mental health care; they banish the mentally ill to an isolated village and let them fight it out. The place certainly earns it's name. Guys chopping off their own hands. Old women crowing like birds. Dudes in white robes with bare asses. Guys with faces on the back of their heads. Overused fog machines. You can see all this and more in the Village of the Crazies. Dodging crazies left and right, Jonathan is chased by an injured Thorg into a room full of (presumably crazy) pigs. Jonathan escapes through a window but Thorg tastes some village hospitality... a pitchfork through the chest.

One of the fun things about this film is spotting all the desperate ways they manage to incorporate Kurt's gymnastic skills. This reaches a giddy new height when Jonathan stumbles across an ancient stone pommel horse in the middle of the town square! He engages in a gymnastics routine as senseless villagers run into his feet one by one. After beating up a large number of the mentally ill, he attempts a slow-motion escape, but gets stuck when he climbs the walls of a narrow alleyway. After some orgiastic moaning, he is hauled onto the roof by... a flag ninja? He removes his mask... it's Jonathan's dad! After escaping the village, they have just enough time for a tearful embrace before Zamir shoots Jonathan's dad in the back with an arrow. Spurred on by his dad, Jonathan heads to the finish line, but first he's got to deal with Zamir!

Naturally, Zamir kicks his ass at first, but soon Jonathan starts busting out his Gymkata skills. He undergoes a series of laughably redundant flips and tumbles, before wrapping his thighs around Zamirs neck and snapping it like a twig. Victorious, Jonathan heads to the finish line with his father (still alive) and Princess Rubali who, along with her father, has been busy foiling Zamir's military coup. The film ends with a freeze frame and a subtitle explaining that the government got their wish to use Parmistan in the Star Wars Defence Program. Thanks for that, I would have stayed up all night with worry if that subplot hadn't been resolved.

Gymkata is a hoot from start to finish. American martial arts movies of the 80s traditionally casted a martial artist who couldn't act. Gymkata one-ups these pretenders by casting someone who couldn't act or fight. The rest of the cast fares little better, except Richard Norton who is a paragon of bare-chested manliness, despite his earring and rat's tail. It's available on DVD now, but I watched a VHS tape I picked up at a flea market for $2 (check out the sweet cover). That's how Gymkata is meant to be watched. Also drunk, and with friends.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - The Origin of the Crabs

It would be hard to the top the massive levels of crustacean carnage in Crabs on the Rampage, so for the fourth book in his epic crab-thology, Guy N. Smith wisely decides to scale down the mayhem and focus on the inhabitants of a small Scottish village.

As it's title suggests, The Origin of the Crabs is a prequel to the other books. You might also (quite reasonably) expect the book to reveal the origin of the crabs. Aside from a brief reference to Russian nuclear testing, it is not discussed at all. Now, I don't really care about the origin of the crabs, but if that's the name of the book you should at least throw us a bone.

Bruce McKechnie has been the laird of Cranlarich estate ever since he murdered his brother for the inheritance. Since then, he has used the grounds to provide hunting and fieldsports for wealthy out-of-towners, much to the consternation of the locals. After a poacher on his grounds has an encounter with a giant crab, McKechnie quickly realises that such news would have a detrimental effect on his business, and he'll do anything to keep the crabs a secret. By which I mean murder.

Since it's a prequel, eponymous hero Cliff Davenport is nowhere to be seen. In his place is the standard Smith hero, the relative-who-is-determined-to-get-to-the-bottom-of-things, John Ryland, who shows up when his brother goes missing in the loch. Christine Blacklaw, resident nymphomaniac, pounces on him immediately. Like most Smith heroines, she keeps herself confined to the background at all times, shouting "No, it's too dangerous!" when appropriate and providing a sex scene when it's time for a break from the gore.

While John Ryland is thoroughly dull, the villain Bruce McKechnie is more interesting, if only for his single-minded determination to keep the crabs a secret no matter how many people get eaten. Luckily for him, the crabs tend to be conveniently shy when the authorities are around. His methods to try to get rid of the crabs become increasingly desperate. It culminates in an attempt to poison the crabs with a drum of powdered cyanide. What's he going to do, spoonfeed it to every one of them? A prominently featured bog provides a prime method of crab extermination, but goes completely unnoticed by everyone until it's way too late.

The book ends bizarrely and abruptly, as if Smith was sitting back examining his finished manuscript (smoking a pipe, naturally) and suddenly thought "Oh shit, it's supposed to be a prequel!" and quickly hammered out an alternate ending that would tie up with the other books. In fact, much of the book has prequel-syndrome, where scenes that should end up in a violent bloodbath (eg a diving team searching the loch in a bathysphere while surrounded by hundreds of onlookers) fizzle out because they are weighed down with continuity.

The plot is weak, and the protagonists demonstrate remarkable lapses of intelligence, such as splitting up in a pea-soup mist populated by giant crabs. However, like Carnivore, the book's focus on gamekeeping and hunting works to Smith's strengths, and he paints a convincing picture of the estate and it's grounds. Highlights include an attempt by the burly gamekeeper, Joe Kinlet, to engage the giant crabs in fisticuffs (spoiler: it doesn't work). Gore levels are high, but do not approach the giddy excess of Crabs on the Rampage.

Like the last book, I picked up the US version and the tagline states "They took England scream by chilling scream. Now they're here!" I was excited to imagine the crabs wreaking havoc across the pond, but the book is clearly set in Scotland. Honestly Dell publishing, between this and the currency issues of the last book, what are you trying to pull?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Crabs on the Rampage

Clickety-click-click! After a brief Australian holiday in Killer Crabs, the giant crustaceans are back to wreak havoc in the UK. But they aren't content with the Welsh coast this time, they're attacking from all sides simultaneously! What's more, a terrible cancer (crab, cancer, get it?) is causing them to drop dead, and in their final moments they are trying to kill as many humans as they can, even if it means following the waterways inland!

The first victim is a determined oologist (and noted pipe-smoker) who spots the giant crabs dismembering and eating a cow on the Wash. You'd think such a spectacle would cause you to run for your life, or at least alert the authorities, but this guy's lust for the rare and elusive bittern egg proves to be his downfall. After this appetiser, the crabs stumble across a beach full of seaside vacationers, and that's when things start to get interesting.

Series regular Grizzly Grisedale calls Professor Cliff Davenport (scientist, hero, lover) back into the fray and, well, I guess you know what to expect by now. Random scenes of crab mayhem interspersed with Davenport and Grisedale wringing their hands. They can't use paraquat this time because the areas are too populated, so they basically have to sit tight, wait for the crabs to die out and hope that nobody is stupid enough to swim around in the water. You may be surprised, but it turns out there are plenty of people who are that stupid.

The crabs work their way from the Wash through the river system and into London, killing dozens, if not hundreds of people on the way. They even take out Westminster Bridge! Guy N. Smith shows his usual skill at introducing and dispatching characters within ten or so pages. While you may not care about them, you at least get to know them a little before they are disemboweled by a pincer and their intestines slurped like spaghetti (a simile which Smith is fond of).

He even manages to work in a character with a ridiculous crab-phobia, caused by a childhood incident involving his father, a chisel and a particularly tenacious crab. This is pretty fucking funny, because he runs around setting crab-traps, calling them "oversized fuck-pigs" and thinking things like "Fuck the Protection of Animals Act of 1911!" before getting snipped.

Davenport posits that the crab's cancerous mutations have been caused by underwater nuclear testing, and that their rampage is their final act of revenge against humankind. Or that they're headed to the secret crab burial ground. Or that they're fleeing from an even more dangerous aquatic mutation. Who knows? Guy N. Smith sure doesn't.

The deaths in this book are even gorier than Killer Crabs, which is really saying something. Pretty much any way you can imagine a giant crab killing someone, it's probably described in detail in this book. Even babies get the sharp end of a crab claw. What's more, the crabs' disease means elaborate descriptions of dripping, cancerous ulcers too! Oh, joy! One sad thing about this book is that Davenport gets so little to do. For most of the book he is just sitting around twiddling his thumbs or examining dead crabs (which never turns up anything interesting). I kind of miss Klin, the grizzled co-hero of Killer Crabs (surely he would have done more than Davenport), so it was nice to see him get a look-in in the epilogue.

This book was a hell of a lot of fun, and if the title Crabs on the Rampage doesn't pique your curiosity just a little bit, then I don't know what to do with you. This is probably my second favourite crabs book (top honours is held by Night of the Crabs, naturally) and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about giant animals running amok.

Additional note: I bought the US version of this book, in which they'd replaced every instance of the word "pound" with "dollar". Did Dell Publishing consider the idea of a foreign currency too perplexing for our American brethren?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Mercenary for Justice (2006)

While his fellow mercenaries prefer camouflage,
Seagal opts for a more slimming black.

Surprisingly (or not, if you read the title of the film) Seagal isn't playing an ex-CIA agent this time but a mercenary named John Seeger. Someone makes sure to mention that he is the most decorated veteran of the Gulf War, so at least he's ex-something. He has been convinced by his buddy Radio Jones (who is the team's comms expert, I shit you not) to take on a mission liberating a small island nation from the French. While they battle the Frenchies (for justice), another group of racist South African mercenaries (not for justice) have kidnapped the French Ambassador and his family.

Both groups have been hired by, as some subtitles helpfully point out, "CIA Dirty Deeds Man" Dresham (Luke Goss) and "Black Opps[sic] Producer" Chapel (Roger Guenveur Smith). They are both evil. Radio Jones decides to make an impassioned speech in the middle of a firefight, which means he gets perforated by gunfire. He asks Seagal to take care of his wife and kid right before he dies. Meanwhile, the racist mercenaries decide to blow their hostages sky high, I guess because they are assholes. This steams Seagal, because he is pro-justice.

When he gets back to the US, Seagal visits Radio's widow and son, and before long they've been kidnapped by Chapel who wants to use Seagal in One Last Mission. He and the South African mercenaries from earlier are given four days to break some billionaire arms dealer's son out of a South African prison. Of course, Seagal is one step ahead, and with the help of his three fellow mercenaries for justice (his ex-girlfriend Maxine, a fellow Detroit native named Bulldog and some hacker) a complicated and fairly ridiculous plan unfolds.

I won't try to explain it here, partially because I don't want to spoil it, but mostly because it makes no fucking sense. Basically it involves stealing millions of dollars from a bank vault while killing a whole lot of cops and security guards... for justice! It ends with a pile of dead bodies and the billionaire arms dealer, his son and Chapel sent off to jail. I thought the movie was going to end right here, but we were nowhere near the magical 88 minute mark, and Seagal hadn't rescued Radio's family or killed Dresham yet.

After a pointless battle at a lighthouse, they head off to the mansion where Radio's widow and son are being help captive. Gunfire ensues. Seagal lets Dresham drive away at first, but once his buddies arrive to hear his zinger he says "I always thought he had an explosive personality" before detonating the car-bomb he had planted. Fetch me some bandages, for I fear my sides may have split! He tops it off by pointing out "I said 'had'". I hope this is the first of many Seagal quips that make reference to grammatical tenses (for the next one my money's on the pluperfect progressive).

Seagal plays a slightly different character than usual: A bit more of a jerk and slightly less than invincible (he never gets injured of course, but there are points where you think it might be a possibility). He doesn't even don his trademark leather trenchcoat until the very end of the film. Like most of his recent films, Seagal isn't involved in a lot of the action and unfortunately what he is in is mainly riding around in big black Jeeps and shooting machine guns rather than snapping wrists. A few necks do get broken, but I've gotta say, the people in this film have some pretty brittle bones. A mild 60 degree turn and their vertebrae snap like twigs. Drink your milk, kids!

This is the second team-up between director Don E. FauntLeRoy and Seagal after 2005's Today You Die and title-wise, I think this film is definitely a step down. Apparently it was originally called Repentance, then Mercenary, then finally Mercenary for Justice. I think I would have called it Hard for Justice (just imagine the trailer: "Steven Seagal is Hard for Justice"). The film looks a hell of a lot better than most Direct-to-Video films, especially the battle at the beginning (FauntLeRoy must know this because it goes on for 20 minutes). According to the special features, FauntLeRoy watched Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down over and over in order to properly rip them off. Seagal is as wooden as ever, but at least he delivers his own lines and his co-stars are pretty good. Roger Guenveur Smith gives an utterly ludicrous performance as the kind of evil CIA agent that always crops up in a Seagal film. He hisses and growls and overly enunciates every word, it's hilarious. I think he was supposed to be South African, but I couldn't tell for sure.

All in all, I've seen worse Direct-to-Video Steven Seagal films (which is probably something you shouldn't admit to in public). It looks like Seagal was present for more than a day of shooting, which is as good as a measure of quality as you're going to get with these kind of films. These days Seagal does barely anything except act, which sucks because he can't. I'm just waiting for them to just cut out the middle man (ie Seagal) and have a double do everything. It might even be an improvement.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Shadow Man (2006)


In 2006/2007 Michael Keusch and Steven Seagal squeezed out an impressive three Direct-to-Video releases. I have already reviewed one of these and Shadow Man is another. These films are unified by their cheap Romanian shooting locations, nonsensical plots and the copious use of stunt doubles for anything more complicated than walking (and sometimes even then).

The film starts in a dojo, with Seagal giving his students a lesson in internal vs external martial arts. After using his internal skills to explode a watermelon, one of his students asks for a lesson. Seagal gives him a punch that sends him flying across the room and through the wall. That's what you get for expecting a lesson from your instructor, punk! In what was probably a post-production afterthought, a body double beats up the rest of his students too.

Seagal is Jack Foster, ex-CIA agent turned family man and Fortune 500 CEO (wow!). It's the five year anniversary of his wife's death and Seagal, his father-in-law and his daughter are planning to visit his wife's hometown. Luckily she was from budget-friendly Romania, which means there'll be more money to spend on more important things, like fiery explosions! Yep, as soon as they get there, Seagal's father-in-law gets blown up by a car bomb and his daughter gets kidnapped.

Why are all these guys out to get him? Well, Seagal's father-in-law (also a spy) planted the formula for a super-virus in the stylus of his palm-pilot. Bad idea, you know how easy it is to lose those things? Everyone wants the virus... Russian mobsters, corrupt Romanian cops, American Black Ops. Plus, it turns out the woman who kidnapped his daughter is actually a former MI6 agent turned cabbie. Pretty much everyone in this film is a spy or a criminal or both.

What follows is a series of gun battles and fistfights, during which Seagal is as invulnerable as ever. Probably moreso. He even manages to take down a helicopter with a few shots from his 9mm. At least he gets a lot to do in this film. He gets into a car chase (or at least, some stunt driver does while he grimaces in front of a green screen), he does some MacGuyver-like improvisation and he even gets a cabbie to take him to a random crack house just so he can beat up a bunch of drug dealers, shoot an old woman and steal some cash. That's Seagal's version of an ATM!

Anyway, like many of Seagal's recent films, the plot is just way too convoluted. There's too many factions and double-crosses, especially when you consider that everything gets resolved by a bunch of successive firefights at the Bucharest public library. There's nothing here that couldn't have been accomplished by a simple kidnapping story, but the runtime is padded with secondary characters. Speaking of which, the rest of the actors do a serviceable job. UK soap star Eva Pope puts in a good turn as Seagal's sidekick. Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton must have some serious gambling debts, because here she is, playing the US Ambassador to Romania.

Compared to Attack Force, this one is pretty good. The acting is better, the script is better and Seagal even says his own lines 99% of the time, even if he is doubled for a few random long shots. Unlike Attack Force, I even think they decided on the species of the bad guys prior to filming. I wouldn't call it, as the back of the box states, a "two-fisted, all-action thrill ride". It's barely a "one-fisted, some-action thrill ride", but it's definitely in the top three Steven Seagal films of 2006.

Attack Force (2006)

This is about the extent of attack force Seagal delivers in this film

Steven Seagal released three Direct-to-Video films in 2006. One of these was Michael Keusch's Attack Force, a film so rushed and sloppy it hit video store shelves with an audible splat! It starts with a murky action sequence that has Seagal retrieving a doohickey in a briefcase from what I assume are evil terrorists. Seagal plays Michael Lawson, a covert ops specialist who is so covert that his name randomly changes from Michael to Marshall and he sounds like someone completely different about half the time. After this confusing and pointless action sequence, he gets called away to Paris on a training mission.

This is the kind of film that insults your intelligence right off the bat, by having an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower and then a subtitle that reads "France, Europe". Then again, since the rest of the shooting locations look suspiciously like budget-friendly Eastern Europe, it probably pays to spell it out.

Seagal's titular attack force is about twenty years his junior, and resemble a bunch of frat boys rather than covert ops specialists. After sitting around discussing how much of a bad-ass Seagal is (and I'm glad they said so, because there's nothing in this film that would indicate as such) they decide to hit the town and pick up a hooker. When they're getting ready to double-team her (with the third guy locked outside and whining away... what a mood killer!) she whips out a weird-looking knife and carves herself some turkeys.

Seagal may display nothing more than a bewildered, blank stare upon discovering their bodies, but you know he's burning with rage inside, and his subsequent investigations lead him to some Eurotrash terrorists with ties to the military. It appears a rogue biochemist/terrorist/pimp is infecting the local populace with a drug called CTX. He is using locals as test subjects, marketing it as a party drug, but it also turns them into unstoppable killing machines. He's also dumped a whole lot of it in the water supply for some reason, and thousands of people are going to be infected within 12 hours. That's bad news... for walls. Yes, evil drug addicts are busting through walls, throwing other people through walls and Seagal's partner even gets tossed through two walls in a single throw. Even Seagal gets in on a bit of wall-busting action.

With the evil government agents who funded the development of CTX on his tail, Seagal is soon surrounded by a swirling mess of subplots and side characters that are randomly killed, resolved off-screen or forgotten entirely. His partner helps him to put together a new attack force and gets him a whole lot of guns and some cool wrist-blades. After he foils an attack by government agents, he gathers his new attack force and heads to an isolated cathedral for the final showdown.

The final fight with the sexy terrorist leader (who up until now has had a sum total screen time of about a minute) consists of repeated enemy-POV shots of Seagal frantically swiping his meaty paws at the camera like the cameraman is holding a cheeseburger just out of frame. The impact of every blow is punctuated by a white flash and whooshing sound effect, which is extremely annoying. Eventually he gives her a chest wound that magically jumps from one side to another, before stabbing her in the head and putting her down for good. Seagal limps away with the only other survivor, a member of his attack force who was introduced about ten minutes prior. Roll credits. I guess we'll have to wait for Attack Force 2 to find out about the CTX in the water supply.

There is evidence of post-production tampering all over the place, with unresolved subplots, dubbed lines, clumsy exposition etc. Apparently the film was originally titled Harvester and was about Seagal fighting aliens. Actually, that explains a lot. Having aliens or terrorists as your antagonists seems like something you'd want to sort out prior to post-production, but that's the magic of cinema.

Yeah, this film is pretty bad, even by Direct-to-Video action standards. The few action sequences are murky and limp and the script is a loose connection of plot holes. Seagal does the bare minimum to get away with star billing and for about half the movie he is dubbed by someone who sounds nothing like him. Worse still, only one limb is broken, and it's not even done by Seagal. Weak. This film is the equivalent of Seagal flipping the bird to his fans.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Steven Seagal: Direct-to-Video Superstar

Steven Seagal, like many of our fine action stars (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes... um, Dolph Lundgren) has been banished to Direct-to-Video pergatory. In fact, if you've been to your local video store lately you've probably seen a lot of Seagal, albeit more bloated and haggard than you might remember him. Since 2003, Seagal has punched out 13 Direct-to-Video releases. Up to four films a year! That puts him up there with such DTV luminaries as Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Marc Dacascos.

Sure, it's a double fighting most of the time. Hell, sometimes it's a double walking around and looping dialogue in post-production too, but that's not what you're paying for with Seagal. It's the ponytail and the leather trenchcoat. It's the weird Eastern mysticism and the ill-defined conspiracies involving shady government agencies. That's the essence of Seagal.

One thing I love about Steven Seagal's films, especially his early ones, is how blunt and honest the titles of his films are. I mean, you pick up a film like Hard to Kill or Marked for Death, you know exactly what you are going to get. Kind of like that film about reptiles on an aircraft, I can't remember what it was called. He briefly lost it when he started teaming up with rappers in the early 00's (Exit Wounds? Half Past Dead? What the hell?) but now he's back producing films with names like Attack Force and Today You Die. Good, solid action movie titles. But are they good, solid action movies?

The short answer is: Probably not. The long answer is: I've purchased several DTV Steven Seagal films, and I'm going to watch every single one of them (even if it kills me) and post my findings here. To paraphrase Seagal, you can take that to the bank... the blood bank (Hard to Kill, 1990).

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

3 Dev Adam (1973)

Oh, spidey! What have they done to you?

Spider-Man, Captain America and Santo? How could you go wrong? Oh, but you can. So very, very wrong. 3 Dev Adam (3 Mighty Men) was Turkey's response to the superhero craze. Throwing together a rudimentary knowledge of some popular superheroes with a blatant disregard for copyright laws, the result is an uncomfortable blend of superheroics and a straight crime film.

The film opens with our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man down at the beach with some friends. At least, I think it's him. His outfit has gone from red and blue to red and green, and there's nary a web to be seen. He's looking a bit paunchy too, and what's more, he has these big honkin' eyebrows protruding from his mask. He's none too friendly either. In fact, he buries a woman up to her neck in the sand and shreds her face with an outboard motor while cackling insanely. I'm beginning to think this movie isn't strictly canon.

It seems ol' webhead is the head of an international crime organisation, and the Turkish police have called in the services of Santo, Captain America (played by Aytekin Akkaya from Turkish Star Wars) and Cap's useless sidekick/girlfriend Julia. Santo explains that Spider-Man is stealing Turkish artifacts and then selling them in the USA for a pittance. Then he's buying them back for a huge amount, but paying with counterfeit money. This is a pretty stupid scheme, but it's worked well for him so far. It should be noted that these heroes really like a drink. In almost every scene where they're off the clock they've got a drink in their hand. Being in this film, I can't really blame them.

Before long, Spider-Man is attacked by a couple of trenchcoated mafia types, but he foils them by hiding behind some wooden planks and then stabbing them with a switchblade. See, it could have been worse than organic webshooters. He emits a gravelly "Adios, mafia!" but I think "Arrivederci, Mafia!" would have worked better.

Upon discovering the bodies of the mafia goons, our heroes split up to try and gather some information. Captain America is out for a drive with the police chief when he asks why they wear costumes. Captain America responds "The Spider is a child-minded lunatic. When he sees someone else wearing a mask he wants to destroy them. My suit is bullet proof." "I see." responds the police chief. Well I'm glad he does.

Julia is sent to an international fashion show, which is being held in someone's living room for some reason. She is discovered by Spider-Man's girlfriend Nadja (not MJ) when she starts snooping around behind the scenes. Luckily, Cap is driving nearby, and the captive Julia is able to signal them with her high-tech watch. She is taken to a house in the countryside by some goons, tied to a column and slapped around. Soon Cap (in costume, finally) punches through the paper-thin door and starts a fistfight with the goons (unfortunately it looks like he couldn't get his shield through customs). At several points he hangs from a rope and executes the most awkward and embarrassing blows ever committed to film. Spider-Man shows up and they engage in a brief footchase, during which a drunken bum sees the costumed superheroes and blames his booze. Oh, my aching sides! Eventually Spider-Man leaps into his crappy old car and drives off. Cap clings to the side of the vehicle but is dislodged by repeated blows to the head.

Meanwhile, Santo stakes out Spider-Man's PO box. He follows the courier back to a gym, and that evening he dons his wrestling outfit (shiny silver mask, sequined cape... perfect for sneaking around unnoticed) and stalks around the main office, shoving various documents down the front of his lycra pants. He is discovered by the mafioso owner and engages in a punch up with him and a bunch of Karate dudes who arrive for some late night sparring. He also heroically helps himself to the contents of the gym owner's wallet.

After throttling a woman in her bathtub and stealing her precious artifact, Spidey calls a meeting with his henchmen. Remember the gym owner from earlier? Well it seems the papers Santo stole contained some sensitive material, and Spidey suspects the gym owner of being a spy. In a Richard Gere meets Bond villain type of punishment, he places one end of a plastic tube over his face and inserts a couple of ravenous guinea pigs. Death by guinea pig! Spidey's cackle goes into overdrive.

While the police chief takes in a striptease (with nipple tassels, this is a kid's show after all) at Spider-Man's private club, Cap and Santo storm the counterfeit operation and beat up the mafia goons. Spider-Man, meanwhile, stabs a couple while they're making out in the shower. That's the second time he's ambushed people in their bathrooms... what a pervert! Later he has sex with Nadja, where she hallucinates a bunch of freaky puppets during orgasm. Yeah, I don't know either, maybe it's a Turkish thing.

During another one of Spidey's robberies that night, he is ambushed by Santo and Captain America, and here is where it gets really weird. Spider-Man is fighting both Santo and Captain America in different rooms simultaneously. Santo and Cap pummel both Spideys, and that's when another Spider-Man pops up and runs away. What the hell? Well, as far as multiple Spider-Men go, it's no less stupid than that whole Clone Wars saga. Anyway, Spider-Man shouts "Goodnight Americanos!" to our heroes and drives off in his car.

The next day, Santos and Captain America head to Spider-Man's gentleman's club in eye-searing leisurewear. Julia is posing as a famous stripper, and their plan is to create a diversion so she can kidnap Spidey's courier. For some reason, their diversion consists of getting into a fight and then pretending to faint. Why the bad guys don't immediately beat them to death or shoot them I don't know, but it works, and Julia knocks the courier unconscious by clobbering her on the head with her shoe (luckily it's the 70s so she's got chunky platforms on).

The bad guys take Santo and Cap to an old warehouse. While Julia and the police chief attempt to extract info from the courier, the two heroes stage an escape by pretending to beat the crap out of each other. Captain America chases after Spider-Man and, after being hindered by some sort of super-powered floor fan, starts another lackluster fight. Eventually Cap crushes his head in some sort of hydraulic press, but suddenly another cackling Spider-Man pops up out of nowhere. Where are they all coming from, and who is going to clean up all these Spider-corpses? A few more Spideys are beaten and crushed by industrial equipment before they stop spawning. So I guess he's defeated then? Okay. Our heroes say their goodbyes, but not before some kid plays a trick on Cap by hiding in the taxi wearing a Spider-Man mask. Ha, ha, ha! What a joker!