Monday, 25 October 2010

Best of the Best 4: Without Warning (1998)

You should see him handle a wet towel

In the fourth and final film in the Best of the Best saga, Tommy Lee (writer/director/producer Phillip Rhee) once again takes center stage. It appears he's given up on the life of a wandering hero since the events of Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, and in the intervening three years he has gotten married (not to Gina Gershnon), had a daughter, become a widower, and started a new career with the police force as a martial arts instructor. Curiously, his daughter is on the cusp of her sixth birthday, so I guess she's either from a previous marriage or he was totally lying about being single in the previous film.

After promising his daughter a homemade birthday cake, he seeks baking advice from his friendly local convenience store owner Jack. It just so happens that Jack's daughter Mickey (Jill Ritchie, who looked really familiar until I looked her up on imdb and found out she had a minor role on Arrested Development as the Bluth publicist) has been contracted by evil Russian counterfeiters to decrypt a disc containing stolen US Treasury security codes. She has a change of heart and escapes, heading straight to her father's convenience store. She is shot by a couple of thugs, but not before she slips the stolen disc into Tommy's pocket.

So the fourth film in the Best of the Best series shifts into yet another sub-genre, the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time type Die Hard action thriller. The two main bad guys are a couple of Russian criminals/terrorists. One of them is played by Tobin Bell, back before he was sentenced to appear in Saw films for the rest of his life. They aren't hugely memorable bad guys, but while their master plan isn't particularly complicated (1. Steal codes 2. Print money 3. Profit!) it is needlessly destructive. Just stealing the banknote paper involves shooting everybody in a traffic control center, killing a half-dozen cops and blowing up a railway station. They then carry an armoured truck away with the help of a helicopter and a terrible composite shot. I wouldn't think it'd be that hard for the police to spot a helicopter carrying a 5-ton armoured truck, but somehow they get away clean.

Naturally Tommy can't go to the police because there's a crooked cop involved. Is it the asshole cop Detective Gresko (Ernie Hudson) who insults and belittles his martial arts, or the nice, friendly cop who helps him out at every turn? The answer may surprise you, but if so then you probably shouldn't be watching such violent films since you were clearly born yesterday. Hudson is wasted as Gresko, whose only purpose is to be enough of an unreasonable asshole that the logical solution to Tommy's problems (going to the police) is out of the question. Similarly for Paul Gleeson, who appears as a friendly priest whose only purpose is to babysit Tommy's daughter so she can be kidnapped and held to ransom in the final act of the film.

With every film Tommy appears to be drifting further and further from his no-killing policy. Early in the film he appears to feel mildly guilty after accidentally killing a henchman, but later he takes part in an explosive chase sequence that destroys a fuel tanker, a car, several motorcycles, a helicopter and possibly a segway or two. In the other films he always showed mercy to the main villains - the one time he killed a villain it was in self-defense, and even then it sent him on a cross-country journey of self-discovery - but here he happily kills the two bad guys by tossing a bag full of explosives through the cargo hatch of their plane while it is in mid flight. He's not really setting a good example for his daughter.

Although this is mainly a guns-and-explosions type action film, they still find a few good excuses for kung fu fight scenes. I especially liked the part where he is escaping the bad guy's hideout and randomly wanders into a martial arts class. I've seen this scenario in a few different films (The Man From Hong Kong, Kiss of the Dragon), but I'm surprised it isn't used more often; it's genius in it's simplicity. In this scene we also learn that Tommy Lee is an expert fencer, by which I mean he can handle an épée, not that he's an experienced trader of stolen goods. The action scenes are shot pretty well, although maybe a step down from the previous films in the series.

I don't really have much more to say about this one. There are a few nice touches, like when Tommy is drugged by an evil woman and butterflies start flying around like in a quirky indie comedy, but mostly it's a pretty dry and by-the-numbers action film. It's a shame to end the series this way, especially since it marks the end of Phillip Rhee's film career, but I do respect that each sequel tried to do something completely different. That's becoming increasingly rare these days, when most DTV sequels are simply a case of doing the same thing as the theatrical release, only less.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1995)

What does that clown think he's doing?

In Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, the series made the leap to direct-to-video and Robert Radler handed over directorial control to series producer Phillip Rhee. None of the cast members return save for Rhee himself, whose character Tommy Lee graduates to a starring role. It's actually quite a refreshing change, as the need for a Caucasian star in the first two movies meant they spent way too much time with Eric Roberts even though Tommy Lee was clearly the most interesting and well-developed character. I guess it's fitting that the first film where he emerges from under the shadow of Eric Roberts is the same film in which he fights racist assholes.

The bad guys are a white supremacist group who have taken over the small town of Liberty (get it?), intimidating black folks in the streets and painting racist, misspelled grafitti on the schoolhouse when the Gospel Choir come to visit. After the Reverend publishes a editorial in the newspaper condemning their actions, they kidnap him, burn down his church, and beat him to death with a baseball bat, leaving his young son orphaned. So these are some capital 'R' Racists. I'm sick of films casting white supremacists as bad guys. What about all the good things that racist skinheads have done for society? Nah, I'm just kidding; fuck those guys. Racist rednecks are probably the most perfect movie villains ever.

It's about 20 minutes in by the time Rhee arrives, but when he does he's wearing the classic hero-drifter look: blue jeans, tight white t-shirt, sunglasses and designer stubble. He's driving around in his convertible, chewing on a toothpick while a cheesy rock song about drifting plays in the background. All the bases are covered. Suddenly his car gets trashed by a passing truck, stranding him just outside of town, but luckily it's the place he was visiting anyway. When he looks for help he gets harrassed by racists in the local diner, so when he's stopped by the sheriff in the next scene you think he is going to be a racist asshole too. It turns out it's his brother-in-law Jack, played by Christopher McDonald.

You'll remember that although Tommy had a Korean family in Best of the Best, Best of the Best 2 claimed he was raised by Native Americans. Best of the Best 3 further muddies the waters by introducing his previously unmentioned sister Karen (Anzu Lawson), who is Asian. I don't think she's a fight-brother, like Dae Han from the first two movies, since she clearly can't fight. The Lee family tree is very mysterious. She and Jack have a son Justin and they've also taken in the Reverend's orphaned son Luther Jr. The Reverend is listed as missing, and although Jack suspects foul play on behalf of the white supremacists, he doesn't have any proof.

The leader of the hate group is an uncredited R. Lee Ermey, who ironically dresses like Malcom X and spreads a message of racial separatism as he tries to set up his own whites-only compound. There's also his second-in-command Donnie (Mark Rolston), who is more into the militant, shaved-headed, cross-burning type of racism. Ermey is never really painted as a good guy, but he is horrified when he discovers (via the classic clumsy-henchmen-dropping-a-crate-full-of-guns method of exposition) that Donnie is stockpiling weapons for a "race war". I thought it was refreshing that they didn't feel the need to pull the Neo-Nazi card, but by the end of the film Donnie and the men start Seig-Heil-ing for no real reason. Oh well.

There's also a subplot about a young guy joining their white power movement. His mother, played by Dee Wallace Stone, is one of those proud single mother stereotypes, down to the waitressing job at the local diner, and she makes a tearful, outraged speech about how his hate will eventually consume him. He replies "Hate has given me something to live for!" Subtle. He has several run-ins with Tommy and eventually he redeems himself in the most predictable way possible, but it would have been funnier if he'd died a nondescript henchman's death, like that guy in Desperado.

Tommy also gets a love interest (sort of), a schoolteacher played by Gina Gershnon. She's one of those feisty Southern women, and it plays out almost exactly how you'd expect. At first he makes a bad impression by saying something sexist, but later she comes over for dinner and they make playful banter in the kitchen while they flick eachother with dishtowels. Finally Tommy saves her from being raped and/or killed, completing the her final transition into action movie love-interest. I don't think they fuck though. This movie isn't that open minded about race.

By the end of the film the bad guys kidnap Luther Jr. and Tommy's nephew Justin, so Tommy and Jack storm the compound, blowing up buildings with explosives and running around armed with machine guns. This would seem to contradict Tommy's earlier statements about how killing goes against everything he believes in, although to be fair I don't think he actually shoots anyone. One of the chief henchmen "Tiny" is taken out by flying debris in one of the explosions, but I guess he can justify that as collateral damage. The final battle with Donnie is actually a pretty drawn-out affair, involving a mini-gun and a shirtless knife fight. At the end of the fight they pull the oh-shit-he-stabbed-the-defenseless-bad-guy-but-it's-okay-because-he-only-stabbed-the-ground-next-to-his-head-in-anger trick, and all the skinheads put down their weapons down in solidarity behind Tommy. Racism cured!

According to imdb, Tommy's role was originally written for a black dude, which makes a lot of sense, but Phillip Rhee liked the script so much he decided to write it into the Best of the Best canon. It's a servicable script, but there are some moments where it gets pretty patronising. Right before the Reverend gets attacked and killed, Luther Jr. sneaks a grasshopper onto the school bus. A little girl freaks out and kills it, and when he asks her why she did it she squeals "Because I was scared!" Oh, I get it. Thanks movie. There's also a town hall scene where outraged townfolk stand up and make heartfelt speeches that clearly lay out the themes and subtext of the movie. The usual stuff, I guess.

The fights are pretty good, although they use a lot of close-ups and editing tricks. For instance, there's once scene where he leaps into the air and kicks three guys off their motorcycles before he hits the ground. Obviously that's impossible to do for real, but I would have been happy with one motorcycle-kicking if they'd done it with stuntwork instead of editing. The most notable scene is where Tommy fights some racists while dressed in a clown outfit, complete with red nose and big, floppy shoes. Most directors would have been tempted to play up the comedy and add cartoon sound effects, but Rhee plays things completely straight, with dramatic music and a deadly knife fight, with just a single gag at the end as he walks away.

Mostly though, this film just goes through the motions, and is thoroughly predictable from beginning to end. It reasonably well-made for direct-to-video and has plenty of fistfights and explosions, but it's just not that memorable. The racial themes are pretty blunt and boring; you're not likely to get much out of them unless you're still on the fence about whether racism is bad. Although Best of the Best 3 is clearly a step down from the first two films, it was fun to see Tommy Lee get a whole film to himself. Onward to Best of the Best 4: Without Warning!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Death Wish 3 (1985)

This is the last thing a "creep" ever sees.

Even though I'm a huge liberal softie, I really enjoy vigilante films. It's so cathartic to see some poor guy get the better of a broken judicial system by delivering justice to criminal scumbags one .45 slug at a time. They appeal to the worst in all of us by insinuating that a reduction in the crime rate is simply a matter of blowing away as many criminals as possible. It's a tempting fantasy but it's still a fantasy, so I like my vigilante films as shamelessly exploitative and reactionary as possible. If you're going to indulge in this kind of thing then you might as well go for broke. It's not surprising then, that Death Wish 3 is my favourite in the Death Wish saga and possibly my favourite vigilante film of all time.

The looong opening credits scene see Kersey on a bus back to New York. He is visiting an old war buddy after his stay in Los Angeles in Death Wish 2 (Kersey alternates between these two cities for the entire series). Although the end of Death Wish insinuated that Kersey's rampage has inspired the citizens to take up arms against the criminals, it doesn't seem to have some much good for his friend's neighbourhood. It looks more like the set of The Warriors, with face-painted gangs freely roaming the streets, stabbing and looting as they please. In fact by the time Kersey arrives at his friend's apartment he has already been robbed and beaten to death, using his final breath to ask Kersey to "take care of my stuff while I'm gone." Kersey is promptly arrested for the murder by the local police chief (Ed Lauter), who is adverserial at first but eventually gives Kersey free reign to take out as many "creeps" as he can. Kersey is happy to oblige.

In the first couple of films, "creep" was just a catch-all term Paul Kersey used to describe the various street punks he gunned down, but in this film everyone talks about "creeps" like they're a different species. You'd think someone would throw in a "scumbags" or "assholes" or even a "motherfuckers" now and then, but no, apparently the correct nomenclature for these giggling street punks is "creeps". They come in a variety of types and ethniticies, but the alpha male is a skinny white guy named Manny Fraker. This guy does not look intimidating at all, in fact he looks like a huge dork with his reverse mohawk and a stripe painted on his head. They have to make his second-in-command Bill S. Preston Esquire just so he looks tougher by comparison.

What I love about this film is that everything is blunt, nothing is subtle. Every political message is italicised and double-underlined. It's not enough that the kindly old couple that make friends with Kersey are Jewish, they have to be Super-Jewish, with menoras and yamulkas framed conspicuously in every single shot. It's not enough that a Police Captain violates Kersey's constitutional rights, they have to include a public defender who shouts "you're violating his constitutional rights!" My favourite piece of right-wing hysteria is when some uniformed police officers, in their one and only attempt at fighting crime, barge into the apartment of an elderly couple and confiscate their handgun. "It's for our protection!" they protest in futility. Sure enough in the very next scene some laughing gang members climb into their apartment and, just in case that were too subtle for you, proclaim that they're going to come and go whenever they want.

As if it weren't already enough of a cartoon, Kersey starts setting up Road Runner style traps in the windows of the apartment building in order to foil burglars. He and the old couple all have a good giggle when they hear a scream coming from the next room, only to find two front teeth embedded in a spring-loaded board. The means that the creep was looking up with mouth agape when the trap went off (maybe he saw a UFO?) or that he had some serious buck teeth. Probably my favourite trap comes later in the film, where a burglar triggers a spring-loaded knife that punctures his skull and sends the lobotomised creep tumbling backwards down a flight of stairs. It's like Home Alone times ten.

Everybody knows that being a pretty young woman in a Death Wish film is an invitation to be raped and murdered. One woman (Deanna Troi from Star Trek: TNG!) appears to get off lightly, with just a rape and a broken arm, but when Kersey takes her husband to the hospital they discover that she died from "complications". Your fate is doubly sealed if you're unlucky enough to be Kersey's love interest, and in this case it's a pretty, blonde public defender, who looks young enough to be his granddaughter. Sure enough their awkward relationship is brought to an abrupt end when Frakes and his men corner her in her car, punch her in the face and then push her car down the hill. It rolls into an intersection, gets into a minor fender bender, and then, in true Cannon style, explodes into a huge fireball. Kersey gives the burning car a blank stare and then turns and walks away, not even checking to see if she's dead. I guess he's used to it by now.

Things are starting to get out of hand, but luckily Kersey's friend "Wildey" is coming to fix everything. This friend turns out to be a .475 Wildey Magnum, and as Kersey's friends gather around he explains it's technical specifications in hushed, reverent tones. He makes sure to mention that it's more powerful than the .44 Magnum (fuck you Eastwood), delivering 0.035 more inches of justice with every shot. Later that evening he tests it out on a "creep" called the Giggler, who he baits with a camera bag, swinging it conspicuously over his shoulder by the slenderest of straps. After the Giggler takes the bait and Kersey shoots him in cold blood, the residents of the adjacent apartment building lean out of their windows and cheer him on. Fraker is less impressed. "They killed the Giggler, man! They had no right to do that! None!"

The creepy fetishisation of firepower doesn't stop there. The grand finale erupts into an all-out war between Team Kersey (median age: 65) and the creeps (median age: 20), which sees Bronson scouring the streets with his trusty magnum, a belt-fed Browning machine gun, and even a bazooka. The creeps respond by calling in their biker pals, who come armed with hand grenades and fire bombs. All of this proves inconsequential to Kersey, who crouches out in the open, impervious to gunfire, as Wildey sends platoons of stuntmen tumbling down fire escapes and off the sides of buildings. Bronson even teams up with the crooked police chief, the two of them triumphantly charging down the street and taking out "creeps" like cardboard targets at a shooting range. Even regular citizens get in on the act, turning the aftermath of a bloody battle with bikers into an impromptu street party, children cheering and dancing around the dead bodies. Damn, I love this film.

To be honest I had no idea that this one was directed by Michael Winner, the same guy as the first two films. Death Wishes 1 and 2 were by no means subtle, but they had a a certain sense of realism and an earnestness to their right-wing proselytising. The third film stretches that propaganda to such cartoonish extremes that I have to believe that Winner knew exactly what he was doing. It's pretty much a perfect parody of vigilante movies. It's much more poorly made than the first two films, and Bronson looks so tired and disinterested that I'm amazed he stuck around for two more, but it's still one of the most entertaining films Cannon ever produced. .475 inches out of .5.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Splinter (2008)

After numerous injuries, Porcupine Wrestling
was removed from the sports program.

Stop me if you've heard this one. A young couple, Seth (Paolo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner), are headed into the woods for a romantic camping holiday when they are car-jacked by an escaped felon Dennis (Shea Wigham) and his meth-head girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). After they stop to change a flat tire, the four of them are attacked by a terrifying monster and forced to seek shelter at an abandoned gas station. As they fend off the creature they go through various attempts to contact the authorities, which range from the sensible (trying to get hold of a policewoman's radio) to the inscrutably ridiculous (pouring lighter fluid through the crack under the door and then lighting it up as a way of attracting attention).

So okay, you've got a small cast confined to a single location that is under seige by a gooey monster. Not an particularly unique set up for a horror film, but writer/director Toby Wilkins applies the formula will enough skill to keep your interest. A simmering conflict between the coolly analytical Seth and the more impulsive Polly keeps the tension rising, although for most of the film Seth is so cowardly and incompetent that you wonder why they are together at all. Dude can't even change a flat tire. Like I mentioned in my Human Centipede review, a lot of horror movie characters could be saved if they just learned how to change a damn tire. Anyway, the characters work pretty well for the most part.

The monster concept is pretty creative too. It's a parasite that causes an infected creature to grow spikes all over their skin like a fungus or mold. It can then control the muscles of the infected area and spread the parasite to other creatures by slashing them with it's spikes. There's a pretty cool bit where someone's infected arm gets a life of it's own, painfully twisting and contorting at unnatural angles, breaking the bones and resulting in a nasty amputation using only a box cutter and a cinder block. Severed limbs can be controlled independantly too, so there are several scenes of reanimated body parts chasing people around. I'm always up for an Evil Dead style severed hand chase.

Unfortunately there's a far less entertaining parasite infesting this film. The dreaded shaky-cam. Look, I know I harp on about this topic a lot. I know that directors these days favour documentary realism over visual clarity. Sometimes it's also a lazy way to paper over technical shortcomings, but I don't think that's the case here. Wilkins has a long history in visual effects, and the practical effects you do see are great, which makes it all the more frustrating when the camera starts whipping around and no single shot lasts more than a couple of seconds. Maybe Wilkins has a bit of a self-confidence problem. Maybe he should start a daily affirmation where he looks in the mirror every morning and says: "I have confidence in my abilities as a cinematic craftsman. I will reject shaky cam and it's empty promises of 'realism'. I will show my rubber monsters on camera for more than three seconds at a time." Come on buddy. We believe in you.

Apart from that it's actually very well made. When the camera stays still you've got great visuals with excellent night photography, and when it isn't at least you've got cool, creepy sound design, with lots of squishy sound effects and cracking bones. One thing I especially liked was the tone. It's fun without being campy or making a lot of stupid jokes. It takes itself seriously enough for the tension to work, but it's never self-serious or pretentious. It reminded me a lot of some older 80s horror films. I also appreciated that it had a cast of relative adults and not a bunch of dipshit teenagers.

The shakycam bullshit rubbed me the wrong way, but almost everything else rubbed me the right way, especially Jill Wagner. My anti-shaky-cam fundamentalist beliefs mean I didn't enjoy this as much as some other people, but if you can put up with all the handheld nonsense then I would give it a go.