Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, I think everyone had given up on Rutger Hauer becoming some awesome super cool megastar, and “everyone” included Rutger Hauer himself. On the one hand, that’s too bad, because there for a while, he was a genuinely cool dude, good looking and charming but with something cruel and disturbing about him. There was no wonder a lot of the spooky ladies (and a fair number of lads) with whom I hung out with back in the day were loopy for Rutger. I’m pretty sure we had plans, at some point, to make a movie featuring Roy Batty in his little leather booty shorts from Blade Runner teaming up with Sting’s Feyd Rautha in his little metal thong thingie to… I don’t know glisten as they traveled from town to town, solving people’s problems.
I’m not saying we really thought the whole thing through. And anyway, Sting eventually bought himself a lute and became really boring, so I’m sort of glad we never made the movie anyway. But if we had, we totally would have made Sting recreate his Ace Face dance scene from Quadrophenia, only wearing his Dune thong. Well, whatever the case, those jerks in Hollywood would never give me the funding, and as a result, Rutger Hauer never became the mainstream icon he should have. On the other hand though, Hauer never bought a lute, and he did go on to do a lot of entertaining work, especially in the field of “low budget straight to video science fiction,” which happens to be one of my favorite fields of study, so I can’t totally bemoan the turn his career took. And now that he seems to be enjoying one of those late-stage career revivals, mostly by getting cast as a guy who is irritated by superheroes, I’d say things turned out OK.
But back in 1992, Rutger Hauer might have been bitter about mainstream success slipping through his grasp, though when I think about it, probably not. His biggest movies up until that point weren’t exactly mainstream. Ladyhawke was a quirky sleeper hit of a fantasy film, but I don’t think it really gained much of a following until it hit the newly forming home video market. Blade Runner was a movie everyone hated until it was heralded as a visionary classic years later, forcing people to pretend like they’d loved it since the day it was released and flopped at the box office because Harrison Ford wasn’t enough like Han Solo in it. Most of Hauer’s roles other than Ladyhawke were designed to creep you out — from Nighthawks to Flesh+Blood to The Hitcher. And heck, he was even kind of frightening in Ladyhawke, now that I think about it. If you weren’t terrified by Rutger Hauer by 1986, then something was wrong.
While he was honing his skills as a guy you’d fall for even though you knew at the end of the day he’d probably cut out your heart and eat it while saying something spooky and profound, he was also working diligently on a second persona: that of a cranky, world weary hero who seems to mutter or sigh all his lines. His first big stab at this was in the do-nothing 1980s actioner Wanted: Dead or Alive, best known — if it is known at all — for being the movie where Rutger Hauer blows up a guy from KISS. In 1989, he took his world weary sighing hero act into the near future for Blood of Heroes, a movie where he got to make out with Joan Chen and slam skulls onto spikes. By 1992′s dystopian futuristic serial killer alien (!) movie Split Second, he had either become so good at acting bored that he seemed totally bored with the movie, or he was totally bored with the movie.
Hauer stars as Harley Stone, a cop with a chip on his shoulder in the near future London of 2008. As we suspected would happen, 2008 is a mess. Global warming has wreaked havoc with the planet’s weather systems. London is in a state of perpetual flooding to which the people of the city, ever stolid and with stuff upper lips, have adapted by simply buying heavier galoshes. Harley spends his days plodding through the dirty, waterlogged streets during what seems to be perpetual night, hunting down a brutal serial killer who likes to cut out the hearts of his victims, which he politely mails to police because this movie is all about a big misunderstanding over the true meaning of Valentine’s Day. Harley is determined to catch the murderer since, as is usually the case with such plots, the maniac killed Harley’s partner, sending the high-strung cop into a spiral of self-destruction and obsession that manifests itself mainly in the form of Rutger Hauer wearing a big black trench coat and showing up too late to stop another murder. This is at least the third time Hauer has worn a big, bulky, black trench coat in a movie, by the way. This is the internet, so I’m sure someone has a website about it.
Harley’s superiors aren’t happy with his methods — you know how superiors are — so they take him off the case even though no obsessed lone wolf cop who plays by his own rules has ever, in the history of movies, been taken off a case and not gone right on working that case, especially if the reason he’s taken off is because “you’re too close to this case!” To this film’s credit, at least the cranky police captain realizes this and eventually reinstates Harley, albeit with a bookish new partner named Dick Durkin (man, if Dick Durkin and Harley Stone weren’t Tom of Finland characters…) even though, being a lone wolf cop, Harley naturally wants to work alone. Durkin (Alastair “Neil” Duncan) is, of course, an Oxford-y egghead who spouts off a lot of intellectual and psychological profiling nonsense, since in the 1990s serial killer profiling had suddenly become en vogue. Durkin assumes they can out-think the killer, use the powers of reason and deduction to detect a pattern and cut the killer off by understanding his psychology. Harley thinks they should just splash around seedy London strip clubs at random until something shows up that he can shoot.
It turns out, we learn, that Hauer also has horrible nightmares about the killer, and that in fact, they’re not nightmares so much as they are psychic glimpses through the killer’s eyes at the moment the murderer is about to strike. So I guess he wasn’t just wandering around at random after all. The movie then sees fit to sprinkle even more convoluted nonsense into the mix, as the killer seems to have a Satan fixation, may or may not think himself the Devil, may lead a cult, and other stuff meant to make things more complicated. That, in the end, the killer actually turns out to be a toothy eight foot tall space alien and/or genetically modified demon almost seems, after so much profiling and psychoanalytical babble, the most mundane and reasonable of explanations.
If he’s not busy walking around or having psychic flashes, Harley likes to retire to his squalid apartment, where he lets pigeons nest in his hair and does his awkward, tasteless best to sort of romance his dead partner’s wife, Michelle (Kim Cattrall, still sporting her beautiful jet black bob haircut from Star Trek VI). I know Kim has done, currently does, and probably always will do movies that I loathe, but none of that kills my adoration of the woman, which is based entirely on the only three movies of hers I’ve actually bothered to see — this, Star Trek VI, and Big Trouble in Little China. There’s no arguing with that pedigree, even if she’s more famous for something else. And hell — have you seen her lately? She’s still fabulous, and I appreciate anyone who is in their 50s and can still strut their stuff. I’m only forty, and the world has decided is is better off when my clothes remain donned.
No one really knew what to make of Split Second upon its release, including the movie’s own marketing department. Was it a cyberpunk tale set in a dystopian Blade Runner future, only with less money? Was it a mismatched buddy-cop movie? Was it an Alien rip-off? A Predator rip-off? A gory horror film? The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but that’s a hard movie to sell to people. As such, Split Second did nothing at the box office. In fact, so dismal was its showing that most people assume it was just a direct to video release. However, not all of the film’s misfortunes can be laid at the feet of its multi-genre approach to storytelling. No, at least some of those woes can be blamed on the fact that this movie also happens to be a joyless, somewhat listless mess.
For the most part, I remember the marketing being very sci-fi heavy, pitching the movie as sort of a rainier version of Predator 2. While there is some cross-over between horror fans and science fiction fans — especially after Alien — there’s also a lot of sci-fi fans who don’t care for gore and grue. But gore and grue is exactly what Split Second serves up, in fairly generous amounts, and I can only imagine how off-putting that must have been to people who expected something a little more light-hearted. The gore is made even more intense by the oppressively grim tone of the film and by the general air of sleaze that permeates this and pretty much any other movie that involves heart-ripping mass murderers and strip clubs. This movie, along with 1985′s Lifeforce and 1997′s Event Horizon serve in my mind as a sort of unconnected trilogy of “horror films that everyone thought were science fiction films when they walked into the theater,” though to be honest, I don’t think many people walked into the theater for any of those three movies.
Despite the fact that Rutger Hauer drifts through the movie with an endless supply of quips and one-liners, as was the style in the day (after all, the least you can do is give them a little something to smile about before you pummel them), there’s very little in the way of levity in this film. It takes the violence of an ’80s action film and strips it of the comic book sense of silliness, almost resulting in a satire of the tendency to crack wise while committing acts of unspeakable violence. Hauer mouths the jokes, but they’re infused with such an undercurrent of bitterness and cynicism that they’re more awkward and scary than they are funny — but that’s Rutger Hauer for you.
There were a lot of movies of this ilk released in the 1990s, as the shiny neon veneer of the 1980s wore off and gave way to grungier, more hopeless visions of the future informed by the popularity of cyberpunk literature, which by the 90s had become cyberpunk culture and was ripe for being appropriated, misunderstood, then misappropriated by film makers. The days of rollicking space adventures gave way to smaller-scale, much more pessimistic films like Split Second and Hardware. It’s odd, at first, to think that the ’80s were so full of gloss and glam despite being a decade in which we all thought we were going to get fried in a nuclear war, fried by the disintegration of the ozone layer, or just crushed by relentless economic bleakness. Then the 90s roll around, we get Bill Clinton in office, and suddenly the country is in pretty good shape. We got jobs, the Cold War was over, our president was into fat freaky chicks, and things were rolling along. But the entertainment of that era was relentlessly downbeat, from grunge rock to Alice in Chains style new metal to cranky science fiction movies, you’d think that the entire country had fallen apart.
But that’s the way the world works. Even though the ’90s were a safer, more peaceful, more stable time for us Americans, we still had to deal with the emotional backlash of what we were desperately trying to ignore during the 1980s. It wasn’t until we emerged from those days that we realized how screwed up everything had been, and with that revelation, a sort of general malaise settled in on society. We started griping and grousing even though things had gotten a lot better. The tone of Split Second is a direct result of the lingering deep blue funk that infected a lot of people. It’s mean and grumpy and largely misanthropic, but it overplayed its hand a little bit and was a little too much for a lot of people. There were also a lot of people who didn’t dislike the movie because of its misanthropic tone, but instead hated the movie because they thought it was terrible. And while I, perhaps predictably, liked the movie (I also liked Event Horizon and Lifeforce, as it happens), it’s not as if there’s much denying that it gives people plenty of critical ammunition.
For starters, there’s Rutger Hauer. His performance is, in a way, the embodiment of this movie’s overall tone — not misanthropic, in my view, so much as it is simply exhausted. I can’t tell if Hauer is doing a really good job or is simply sleepwalking through a movie in which he has no interest. Whatever the case may be, the end result is that he turns in a bored looking performance that creates a sort of bored atmosphere. A movie about a Satan-worshiping killer alien preying on strippers and with a psychic link to Rutger Hauer shouldn’t be this lacking in energy, but Hauer handles the whole thing with an overplayed world weariness that borders on lethargy. I understand he’s a man whose seen it all, but if we’re to believe him as obsessed and on the edge, we need to see a little more oomph put into his obsession. As played, he seems as dedicated to catching this killer as I am to trimming an inch or two of fat off my waist. Yeah, sure, I want to do it I guess, but you know, whatever. I also want to eat apple cider doughnuts.
Then there’s the case of the script, which starts out with a rote but dependable “cop tracks serial killer” plot, becomes a still somewhat rote but dependable “cop tracks monster” plot, and then all of a sudden is cramming in all sorts of ridiculous shit, most of which is half-baked and never really seems to have much to do with anything. Generally, I like when a screenwriter or group of screenwriters start to lose control of their own creation. As viewers we get to watch the thing grow more and ridiculous and nonsensical, until it seems like whoever was writing it was either simply holding on for dear life or was sitting in a room with a bunch of other people, smoking pot, and coming up with things like, “No, dude, check it out. What if it’s a DNA thief, and it’s got some of Rutger Hauer’s DNA? And that’s why they have a psychic connection, because like, you know, your psychic powers are stored in your DNA.” And then everyone exhales and bongs have written another goofy science fiction horror movie plot twist.
Thing is, as much as I appreciate the fact that the script for Split Second seems to go off the rails and meander farther and farther away from a point where it might have been thought out, it unfortunately goes about its descent into madness with all the energy of…well, Rutger Hauer’s performance. As nutty as it gets by film’s end, there’s too much between the opening and ending that seems like the movie is just spinning its wheels and trying to think of something to do next. It gets to the point at times where watching the movie is like being stuck in that same room of stoned writers while they spend ten minutes doing the “What do you want to eat/I don’t know. What do you want to eat?” round and round.
Much of the stuttering pacing is probably attributable to the inexperience of screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, who would learn to pace his scripts more expertly by the time he was raking in the dough for the Fast and the Furious movies he wound up writing. 1992 sees him pretty early into his career as a screenwriter, and the lack of seasoning is likely why the movie ends up being so unfocused and susceptible to needing to pause and figure out where it’s going.
On the other hand, Thompson’s screenplay offers enough meat so that a talented director should have been able to stage a more exciting movie than the one we got. Tony Maylam wasn’t the man for the job, though. Despite his first directing job coming in the early 1970s, Maylam worked infrequently and then primarily on small-scale television projects and documentary films. He brings a decidedly plodding style and small-scale feel to Split Second, a movie whose ridiculous plot demands a much more robust job at directing. I don’t know what Maylam’s deal was, if this was the best he could do or if he just didn’t care. It hurts the film whatever the case, and Maylam himself wouldn’t work again until 2001′s Phoenix Blue, and after that he seems to have occupied himself mostly with making documentaries about automobile design.
Other aspects of the film aren’t as dull as Maylam’s direction, though. For the most part, the cast gives it their professional best effort — most of them are British, after all, and Brits rarely seem to half-ass it, no matter how silly the material. The supporting players and extras chew scenery, bellow, grimace, shout, grumble, and get choked by Rutger Hauer with admirable gusto. Kim Cattrall also turns in a good performance and radiates charm, even though she ultimately gets relegated to the unenviable “damsel in distress” role. And you know, even when Rutger Hauer seems to be only half present, he still brings a dangerous charisma and undefinable something to the role that makes him worth watching.
The performance of the movie has to go to Alastair Duncan though, whose sidekick character is given some truly unwieldy technobabble and psychobabble to spout. Somehow, he manages to mouth it all and make it sound convincing. His transformation from skeptical academic egghead cop to wild-eyed soulmate for Hauer’s Harley Stone may not be the height of originality, but Duncan makes it work wonderfully and provides the movie with one of its only moments of genuine humor that doesn’t involve pigeons sitting on Rutger Hauer’s head. These days, Duncan’s doing a lot of video game and cartoon voice acting, including doing the voice of Alfred on The Batman. What are the odds that both Harley Stone and Dick Durkin would go on to play roles in the sundry Batman franchises?
And the alien, or genetic mutant, or psychic freak, or whatever the hell the monster is, is also a great design. Obviously, though its behavior is all Predator 2, its look is a straight up rip off of the creature from Alien. Thing is, though, it’s a very good rip off, with lots of the drooling and sliminess that you expect from such creatures. We’re still solidly in the era of man-in-suit monsters, and at least by my standards, that makes for a much more interesting and menacing monster than could have been realized by CG — and I don’t just mean 1992 CG. Although I have made my peace with CG for the most part, I still have lingering disapproval for CG blood effects (juicy squibs are so much cooler looking) and for human-size, human shaped monsters rendered by computers rather than being played by a man in a rubber suit. Split Second‘s killer creature is no Pumpkinhead, but it’s a respectable beastie never the less.
It’s certainly weak enough in parts to disappoint more discerning viewers, and the gore and sleaze is copious enough to turn away anyone who got suckered into thinking they were going to get a straight sci-fi film or “Blade Runner but with a monster.” But I’m a pretty undemanding viewer, and the gore didn’t phase me, so I was able to chalk up enough enjoyment out of the film to like it, even though I wanted it to be better than it was. What couldn’t possibly be better, however, is the ending. There’s really no way to top Rutger Hauer pulling a monster’s heart out of its chest, then topping that off by shooting the heart with a giant shotgun, just because the monster pissed him off that much. Split Second isn’t necessarily a film I feel like I need to champion. It’s not a lost classic or a work of maligned and misunderstood genius. I wasn’t overjoyed with it, but I was pretty happy. If, like me, you have a certain tolerance for the unruly, low budget, cynical sci-fi films that came out in the early 1990s, you can probably wring at least as much entertainment out of this hateful little piece of sci-fi horror as I did.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Kim Cattrall, Neil Duncan, Michael J. Pollard, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Roberta Eaton, Tony Steedman, Steven Hartley, Sara Stockbridge, Colin Skeaping, Ken Bones, Dave Duffy, Stewart Harvey-Wilson | Screenplay: Gary Scott Thompson | Director: Tony Maylam | Music: Francis Haines, Stephen W. Parsons | Cinematography: Clive Tickner
My introduction to Hong Kong movies was, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to me as a direct result of my writing about film. The year was 1989, and I was writing for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco. I’d like to say that I was “working” for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco, but the truth is that I was actually working as a clerical temp downtown, and that I was, at best, just making a meager dent in my nightly bar tab by writing a couple of film or album reviews a month for the lordly sum of a nickel a word.
Anyway, one day my editor tells me that he’s pegged me as the right guy to cover a certain film festival that’s coming up at one of the city’s small repertory cinemas — a film festival dedicated to this crazy popular cinema that’s been coming out of Hong Kong in recent years. Though I was intrigued, I have to admit that my exposure to Asian cinema at that time was limited to the output of Japan and the Bruce Lee movies I’d seen as a kid. I really didn’t know what to expect. Still, what little I had heard about these films included the fact that they were extremely fast paced and filled with all kinds of crazy stunts, which, then as now, was more than enough for me. I accepted the assignment, and was in turn handed a stack of VHS tapes that had been provided by the festival organizer.
I hadn’t actually planned to watch all of those tapes in one sitting. In fact, upon arriving home, popping the first of the tapes into the VCR, and witnessing its dire picture quality, I despaired at being able to get through even one of them. Those of you who were fans of Hong Kong films during that era know exactly what I’m talking about: The Tai Seng logo, the washed out, dupey images, and just enough of the English subtitles poking up at the bottom of the screen to taunt you with their presence while at the same time remaining completely illegible.
Still, this proved to be less of an impediment to my enjoyment than I anticipated, and I was soon popping in one tape after another, devouring them greedily like a fat kid with a box of bon bons. As a result, my introduction to Hong Kong films was less of a gentle easing in than it was a process of total immersion, like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end. In that one afternoon and evening I watched Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and the first Police Story, as well as a couple others whose titles escape me at the moment. Then, on the following day, I skipped work to go to an early morning press screening that featured back-to-back showings of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II.
As you might imagine, to say that my mind was blown would be an epic understatement. This was a pivotal event in my life as a film fan, one that would change the way that I watched movies forever. But to understand just how blown it was, you really have to understand how different these movies were from what I, like a lot of other Americans, was used to at the time. It seems silly, thinking of it now, but previous to that time I had dedicated a lot of word count to decrying what I saw as Hollywood’s then increasing reliance on action spectacle, singling out now fairly conventional films like Lethal Weapon II and The Abyss for reeling out fast paced series of big “events” at the expense of those things that thoughtful and sensitive folks such as myself were supposed to place a higher premium on, like plot and characterization.
What I had yet to realize, though, is that it wasn’t that those Hollywood action films were going too far, but that they weren’t going far enough. With Hong Kong movies, I experienced for the first time the joys of pure cinema, of movies that you experienced viscerally as a blur of motion, speed and undiluted style. This is not to say that I had previously been a stranger to the thrills of genre and exploitation cinema, mind you. Thanks to the variety of theaters available to us, my friends and I came of age as film geeks on a steady diet of equal parts art- and grind-house cinema, and back in the day were just as likely to be found at a matinee showing of Death Race 2000 or Don’t Go In The House at the St. Francis as we were a Bunuel retrospective at the Castro.
It’s just that, in these Hong Kong films, I saw consistently demonstrated something that, in my long experience of watching American genre films, I had only very seldom seen: and that was a solid commitment to actually delivering. Though about as mercenary as could be, these movies paradoxically displayed a desire to entertain that seemed completely untainted by cynicism, refreshingly free of the air quotes that modern Hollywood tends to put around anything as corny as the idea of actually trying to inspire wonder in their audience, as well as of the short-cutting, bait-and-switch tactics of the exploitation game. With movies like Eastern Condors or Police Story, your mind was blown because their makers saw it as their duty to insure that your mind was blown, no matter how limited they were by their means.
Of course, who wouldn’t be blown away by their first encounter with Jackie Chan in his prime? Or by the Better Tomorrow films, whose on-screen body count was at the time greater than anything I’d seen before — to the point of being exponentially so — yet also exuded visual poetry, along with an awful lot of not-so-subtly gay undertones? Or the, at the time, very discordant seeming collisions of ruthless violence, wacky slapstick, and overweening sentimentality found in most of these films? And then there was Zu, my initial reaction to which I have been striving to recreate throughout all of my subsequent years of trolling through world pop cinema. I quite honestly had never seen anything like it. So taken with it was I that I excitedly subjected the girl I was dating at the time to an impromptu screening, which she effectively shut down after twenty minutes with an indignant cry of “I can’t believe you thought I would like this!” (We didn’t stay together too long after that.)
So, needless to say, there were a lot more of those warbly Tai Seng videos in my future, as I spent much of the next few months trying to make up for all the time I’d spent on Earth not knowing that these movies existed. Then, in 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and during the period of adjustment to a new town, a new job, and a new relationship, I started to lose sight of some of my old interests, including, for a time, my pursuit of crazy Hong Kong movies. This dark period, I’m sad to say, went on for far too long, finally coming to an end in the mid 90s, when an old friend, who thankfully hadn’t realized how lame I’d become, gifted me with a copy of the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head — a book which I now know featured contributions from an upstart young film scribe by the name of Keith Allison.
It didn’t take long for that book to rekindle my passion, and I was soon down at my local video store –- which, like many non-chain video stores by that time, had a lovingly curated section dedicated exclusively to Hong Kong movies — trying to catch up on what I’d missed. With the Sex and Zen book as my guide, I chose as my first two rentals Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio and the film that I am eventually going to get around to reviewing here, Naked Killer. Both films have gone on to count among my very favorites — not just in terms of Hong Kong films, but films, period. And while watching them for the first time, along with being blown away anew, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong films had changed while I was gone. For starters, everything was blue! And, as Naked Killer clearly evidenced, there was lots of sex now!
Of course, one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong cinema during my several year period of inattention was the transformation undergone by the country’s “Category III” rating, which went from simply being part of the ratings code to becoming a distinct genre all its own. Essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the U.S.’s NC17, Cat III was notable for being the one tier on the HK ratings system that was actually enforceable by law; underage audience members who flaunted it could be subjected to heavy fines. Though the rating had been around for a while, it was not until the late 80s, with the success of films like the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun, that producers recognized a substantial potential audience for exactly the kind of taboos that the rating was designed to prohibit. Thus came forward a wave of films that courted the Cat III rating with depictions of almost every kind of depravity imaginable, as well as, of course, copious amounts of those age old friends of the exploitation filmmaker, nudity and simulated sex. Rape, cannibalism, sexual mutilation and graphic child murder were not uncommon in the Cat III films. And if the film happened to be directed, written, or produced by Wong Jing, it likely added to those disturbing elements a jarring dose of lowbrow slapstick comedy.
I want to say that Wong Jing is a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema, but the truth is that there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the fact that his films are generally awful. Or, I should say, a consensus among those who do not include the many, many, many filmgoers who made Jing a very wealthy man as a result of his not underestimating their appetite for trash. Jing was one of the most prolific and successful commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, thanks to a factory-style production technique, a shrewd ability to identify and shamelessly copy popular trends, and a willingness to stoop as low as necessary to provide his audience with what he deemed their desired (very generous) level of sex, violence and vulgarity. This last quality, unsurprisingly, made him a pretty heavy presence in the Cat III scene. And while I have not exactly sought Jing’s work out, I have to say that, in my experience, his name in the credits is not necessarily an impediment to a very enjoyable viewing experience. For instance, he acted as a producer on The Seventh Curse, which, alongside The Eternal Evil of Asia, is one of the most crazy and flat-out fun examples of Cat III supernatural nonsense out there. He also both produced and wrote the Clarence Ford directed thriller Naked Killer, which, as I’ve already said, is one of my favorite movies.
Now I should say here that Naked Killer definitely exists on the tamer end of the Cat III spectrum. In terms of sex and violence, its content doesn’t go far beyond what you’d see in the kind of direct to cable erotic thrillers that Cinemax was showing at the time. But while, in the case of those thrillers, the most you could hope for, in the best of circumstances, was that they would actually deliver those promised elements, Naked Killer sets itself apart by being so much more than even the most unrealistic thrill seeker could hope to expect. This means that, along with our very generous apportionment of skin and gore, we also get a raft of bizarre characters, a seemingly inexhaustible series of outlandish situations, and one jaw-dropping plot twist after another, all thrown at us at the reckless, head-spinning pace that we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong at the top of its game. And to put the bow on the package, the whole is at once coolly stylized to within an inch of its eroticism-oozing life and as slick as a stretch of rain covered blacktop.
Naked Killer demonstrates its good will toward its audience by making good on its title within scant minutes of its opening credits. And by that I mean that there is a killer, and that she is indeed, by all appearances, naked. This automatically makes Naked Killer better than approximately 80% of all other non-porn movies with the word “naked” in the title. After an opening shot of a mysterious woman hurrying down a rain slicked street bathed in atmospheric blue light, we see an armed man making his way through a darkened apartment and surprising a woman in the shower. “What are you doing in my apartment?”, he asks, effectively making our expectations do a quick somersault. Well, it turns out she’s there to kill him, which she does by handily disarming him, then hobbling him with his own workout equipment before crushing his skull and sealing the deal with a well placed bullet to the groin.
We later learn that this woman is Princess (Carrie Ng), a professional assassin who, along with her partner and lesbian lover Baby (Madoka Sugawara), is responsible for a string of castration murders that have the Hong Kong police baffled. Participating in the investigation is improbably fashion-forward young police detective Tinam, played by former model Simon Yam. And, because this is a Wong Jing film, Tinam has a partner named Shithead (or “Dickhead”, as he’s referred to in certain, more dainty translations of the film) who we will later see mistakenly eat the severed penis of one of Princess’s victims thinking that it’s a sausage, as well as verbally abusing a Filipino maid with all kinds of sexually inappropriate questions. Comedy!
This being a Wong Jing film, poor Tinam is also not without a few peculiarities of his own. It seems that, ever since a recent shooting incident in which he mistakenly killed his policeman brother, he is unable to handle a gun without becoming physically ill and vomiting. He also can’t get it up. In order to allay his blues, his superior officer suggests that he go get a haircut.
At the salon, Tinam witnesses a beautiful and provocatively dressed young woman named Kitty flirting with, and being aggressively hit upon by, one of the hairdressers. Things heat up when the hairdresser’s pregnant girlfriend shows up demanding to know why he dumped her. Kitty at first eggs the guy on in his contemptuous treatment of the woman, but then reveals that she is in fact the woman’s friend, and that she was merely setting him up in order to demonstrate to her friend what a scumbag he was. Then she takes the hairdresser’s cutting shears and stabs him repeatedly in the groin with them.
Kitty is played by the actress Chingmy Yau, here saying goodbye forever to the nice girl roles that she had played previously and embarking on her career as one of HK cinema’s biggest sex symbols of the 90s. Yau was the girlfriend of the married Wong Jing at the time, and the producer had — and would continue to — cast her in a number of his films, including, in the wake of Naked Killer‘s success, quite a few Cat III titles. Intimations of the casting couch aside, it’s easy to see why this was. Yau is a star with enormous sex appeal, and, in Naked Killer the camera just can’t get enough of her. Cinematographer William Yim takes great care to insure that no opportunity is missed to milk the beautiful star’s every pose and gesture for all of its fetishistic potential, whether she be zipping herself in or out of some picturesquely restricting pleather or spandex garment, or suggestively wielding an automatic weapon.
Interestingly, despite her status as a star of erotic films, you will never see Yau fully nude in any of her pictures — though the lengths gone to strategically place mussed sheets, picturesquely out of place strands of hair and resplendently splayed limbs to accomplish this render her “not nude” in only the most technical sense. This is a product of the general desire to avoid the stigma of nudity on the part of those actresses who appeared in Cat III films but also wanted to maintain their foothold in mainstream fare. Such career-protecting reticence is also the reason for the absurd lengths to which the actress Amy Yip went in almost every one of her films to conceal her nipples while at the same time showing us virtually all of the goods. In the case of Naked Killer, Japanese pinku actress Madoka Sugawara had to be imported in order to deliver the necessary quota of skin, as all of the other lead actresses keep their wardrobes within teasing yet strictly PG-13 parameters. (Note that this only holds true if you have something other than the US DVD of the movie, which has all of Sugawara’s full nude scenes, among much else, edited out. So be forewarned: If you are not seeing a naked Madoka Sugawara, you have been sold an inferior product.)
After witnessing Kitty’s de-balling of the hairdresser, Tinam pursues her out of the salon, only to be overcome with nausea when she grabs his gun from its holster and points it at him. Apparently fascinated by this strange and pathetic creature, Kitty uses her shrewd skills at manipulation to convince Tinam to leave the scene without arresting her, but then uses the excuse of his left-behind pager (ah, the 90s) to contact him later. With some dogged persistence on Kitty’s part, a cautious, teasing courtship between the two begins, one which soon show signs of developing into a full-blown case of amour fou. Before this can happen, however, Kitty comes home one day to find that her father, a humble food cart operator, has been killed by his much younger wife’s lover, a Triad type by the name of Bee. Kitty responds to this by showing up at Bee’s offices with a sub-machinegun and killing absolutely everyone in sight –- receptionists, secretaries, file clerks, everyone –- before finally doing in the man himself. With some of Bee’s goons in pursuit, she then takes as a hostage an older woman who, it appears, just happened to be visiting the office at the time, and makes her way to an adjacent high-rise parking garage.
Once in the garage, however, it is quickly revealed that Kitty’s hostage is much more than she initially seemed. As the goons close in, this woman suddenly whips off her dowdy business attire to reveal a skintight cat suit, then assumes one of those cat-like, battle ready ninja poses that lets you know that the shit is on in no uncertain terms. What follows is an absolutely spectacular set piece in which quick cutting, masterful stunt work, and lots of blood packs combine to present us with the vision of two female badasses making hash out of an army of hapless stuntmen. 70 seconds later, when it’s all ended with an explosion and the two women using a fire hose to rappel down the face of the parking structure, one can only catch one’s breath and immediately reach for the replay button. Truly, what’s most amazing about the sequence is that, despite it’s skittering pace, chaotic staging and lightning fast edits, the viewer is never left confused as to what exactly is happening or whom is doing what to whom. Michael Bay take note.
Kitty’s new friend, it turns out, is a sort of hitwoman mother superior by the name of Sister Cindy (Taiwanese singer Kelly Yao, aka Wai Yiu), and, when Kitty next awakens, she finds herself in Cindy’s house, which is basically a multicolored comic book funhouse well suited to being a villain’s lair in an old episode of Batman. She also finds that her fingertips have been removed. Cindy tells her that she has decided to take her under her wing and train her as an assassin, and given that the alternative is for Cindy to either kill Kitty or turn her in to the police, Kitty reluctantly agrees. And so the training begins.
Like any hitwoman worth her salt, Cindy has a violently psychotic pedophile chained up in her basement, and Kitty’s first lesson involves her being locked in with him with no choice but to kill him in order to get the key, which Cindy has planted on his person. Once this is out of the way, much of the other lessons involve Cindy drumming into Kitty’s head the idea that her most formidable weapons are her body and feminine wiles, all the while groping and fondling her suggestively. Finally, school is out and it’s time for Kitty’s first assignment, which involves icing a Yakuza at one of those classic 1990s erotic thriller nightclubs where there are half naked people in masks on the dance floor, orgies going on in the bathroom, and men quite literally snorting coke off the backs of whores. While Kitty’s mission is completed successfully, it has the unfortunate consequence of the Yakuza hiring a rival pair of female assassins in order to get payback against her and Cindy –- and these turn out to be none other than Princess and Baby. Princess, we learn, is a former pupil of Cindy’s, one whom Cindy has warned Kitty to be wary of, as, unlike the two of them, who only kill people who “deserve” it, Princess and Baby would kill their own mothers –- or mentors –- for the right price.
Along with being something of a classic among Cat III films, Naked Killer is also a key entry in the whole “Girls With Guns” sub-genre that flooded Hong Kong’s screens during the late 80s and early 90s. And, truly, it’s hard to imagine a film that makes more explicit the already none-too-subtle “chicks with dicks” subtext of those particular movies. (Though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suggesting that, in the varied and perverse world of Cat III and GWG cinema, another such film might not exist.) The film’s world of male characters is made up either of violent, sexually predatory curs who deserve nothing less than the castration meted out to them by the female leads, or ineffectual neurotics like poor Tinam, who appears to have some difficulty with getting his “gun” to work properly in the first place. Really, in the end, it’s only Naked Killer‘s chicks who have the dicks. And while the film’s depiction of lesbianism is — let’s not kid ourselves –- clearly intended to titillate, it ultimately ends up looking less “naughty” than it does to be the only sane alternative in the world the film presents. In this sense, Naked Killer reminds me a lot of the Japanese films in the Pinky Violence genre, as, like those films, it comes to its male viewers with the self loathing already built in, reflecting them back to themselves as an unseemly parade of slavering potential rapists and impotent boy-men. I suppose all the better to be squished under Chingmy Yau’s imposing thigh high boots.
And, of course, first in line to be squished is Tinam, whose investigation of the castration murders ultimately leads him to Sister Cindy’s doorstep. However, by this time, Kitty has assumed a new identity, and, upon seeing Tinam, pretends to have no idea who he is. At this point, Naked Killer briefly feints toward being a sort of Hong Kong new wave take on Vertigo, but Tinam and Kitty’s mutual attraction soon proves too strong to allow this situation to stand. We are treated to a montage of each masturbating languorously in his and her separate corners of Hong Kong, cluing us in that the mounting pressure will soon place them in bed together where we all now want them. When this does happen, I imagine that few will be surprised to learn that Tinam’s former erectile difficulties are now firmly consigned to history. In fact, so heated is this coupling that Princess, spying on the two through her rifle’s telescopic site, finds herself instantly in the throes of sexual obsession with Kitty, and, at the height of her arousal, discharges her weapon skyward in frustration.
Clarence Ford has said that his primary inspiration in making Naked Killer was Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, while Wong Jing had wanted a Hong Kong version of the recent American hit Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the finished product does, to some extent, come across as a combination of Chor’s more refined and elegant approach to eroticism and Paul Verhoeven’s coarser one. Though I think that, in the end, Chor Yuen won out. Ford was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes, as well as with requiring nudity of his actresses, and so kept both to a minimum (certainly by Cat III standards, at least). He compensated for this by conveying sensuality through lushness of atmosphere and luxuriousness of texture, along with a voyeur’s obsessive focus on the physical beauty of his actors. In other words, by an engagement with the truly erotic. Dated 1990s fashions and trip hop music notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone can deny that Ford’s is a movie that’s oozing with a potent sexuality — one of the type that only gains intensity by it’s proximity to mayhem.
And mayhem there indeed is, with Sister Cindy taking it upon herself to kill everyone who can establish a connection between Kitty’s new identity and her former life, including Tinam’s boss. Tinam himself only escapes as a result of Kitty’s constant interventions. Meanwhile, Princess combines her stalking of Sister Cindy with an increasingly fevered erotic pursuit of Kitty, inspiring not a small amount of ire in the heart of the lethal Baby. It probably goes without saying, given all that has lead up to it, that the end will come in an epic conflagration fraught with grand tragic gestures and operatic bloodletting. Who would expect anything less?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Naked Killer. But, to me, it’s only the subpar exploitation films that give sex and violence a bad name, while the ones like Naked Killer put sex and violence back on the pedestal where they belong. Rather than the nihilistic sleaze-fest that one might typically expect from the Cat III genre, Naked Killer is a film that rages with vitality, and offers about as good an example as I can think of of cinema’s unique ability to show us a vision of our waking world merged with that of dreams. And by “dreams” I don’t mean the kid stuff that Hollywood usually sells, but the sweaty adult variety, teeming with submerged guilt and forbidden desires. It’s an aestheticized orgy of sex, death, lust and murder that, when it’s all over, somehow leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty damn wonderful place. And for that I can only say this: Thanks once again, Hong Kong, for delivering.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Carrie Ng, Madoka Sugawara, Wai Yu (as Kelly Yao), Ken Lo, Shiu Hung Hui, Cheung Jing | Writers: Wong Jing | Director: Clarence Ford | Cinematographers: William Yim, Peter Pau | Music: Lowell Lo
Producer: Wong Jing
At this point in Teleport City’s existence, I think we can skip the introductory material regarding the post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s. Suffice it to say that the wake of the good ship Road Warrior is cluttered with some truly ridiculous flotsam, the vast majority of which seems to have drifted over from Italy, occasionally with a grinning Fred Williamson clinging to it, trademark cigarello clenched firmly between his teeth. And we don’t want to short-change The Philippines, whose contributions to the genre may be fewer and less “famous” but are even battier than their Italian counterparts. And occasionally, the United States would decide that if it was the country that most movies would hold at least 50% responsible for the post-apocalyptic setting, then the US might as well get in on the game.
Perhaps because we were stocked with the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, many US productions wrong-headedly tried to present a more “realistic” interpretation of what the world would be like after the collapse of society, rather than relying on the tried and true leather-clad mohawk guys tearing about in dune buggies that the rest of the world seemed to happy with. Less Road Warrior, more Mad Max, in that way. But every now and then, the United States would get its head out of its ass, stop producing dull claptrap like The Day After (so dangerous and shocking that the people made it weren’t even sure if we should watch it — seriously, they claimed to expect people flocking in for shock and post-traumatic stress disorder after witness the stark horrors the mini-series had in store for us. That’s near William Castle levels of brilliant), and make something that just through its hat into the ring of goofball post-apocalyptic adventure.
Coming as it did in 1991, Neon City sort of missed the boat. The Soviet Union was no more. The threat of nuclear annihilation was receding into the background. It was looking like that bomb shelter I’d built with my friends back in the woods and stocked with tins of Dinty Moore and Beanie Weenies was not going to be needed (though as far as I know, it’s still back there, right about here). Despite a brief foray into Middle Eastern warfare in 1990 and a mild recession, things were looking up. The environment for a post-apocalyptic action film was less inviting than it had been during the height of Reagan era Cold War paranoia. Luckily, Neon City decided to eschew nuclear annihilation as the way to get us all into football pads and assless leather pants and relied instead on a more 1970s style of tearing the world apart: environmental devastation. Contending with a ravaged environment is a standard part of any post-apocalypse movie, but more times than not, at least during the 1980s, that environment had been ravaged by nuclear war, which for some reason, the people of the near future could call nuclear war, opting instead to always give it some hokey, vaguely Biblical name like “the great cleansing” or “the time of fire.”
I guess something gets into the drinking water that causes our post-apocalyptic to give things more flowery, poetic, and creative names than what we did with wars like “World War II” and “The Hundred Years’ War.” But movies in which the wrecked environment is the cause, rather than a symptom of, the end of the world are farther between than the more common “you blew it up!” variety of film. However, with the two great super powers of the world turning their ICBMs into planters and having their old war bunkers blessed by crystal wielding new age priestesses (or something like that), a post-apocalypse latecomer like Neon City had to cast its net back to the decade of gas rationing and the great paranoia about the environment. It’s not that big a surprise, then, that the fish this movie pulls back into the boat resembles something more from the 1970s than the Reagan era post-apocalypse action movies with which we’d grown so familiar. Ozone layer depletion was still a hot topic at the time, so seizing on that as the cause of our doom was only natural.
Neon City is a decidedly more somber affair than movies like New Barbarians, 2020 Texas Gladiators, or Cherry 2000, to name just a few. It still boasts the hallmarks of the 1980s post-apocalypse movie — a big ass truck, marauders on motorcycles, questionable trends in fashion, a droning synth score — but it presents them in a much less cartoonish fashion, opting instead of a tone that is bleak, depressed, and surprisingly believable. The world of Neon City is successfully convincing as an actual post-apocalyptic society, one in which law and order exists in miserable, grimy pockets alongside large swaths of the country that have devolved into lawlessness. The future is such shit because the ozone layer was being eaten up at a frightening pace. In an attempt to halt and repair the damage, NASA hired a brilliant scientist who concocts some crazy sort of laser experiment. Unfortunately, all it does it accelerate the decay, thrusting the earth into a gloomy future where clouds of poison dust roll across the wasteland and people can be fried alive during certain conditions that create some crazy sort of intensification of sunlight. Civilization, or at least large swathes of it, couldn’t be sustained. The United States fractured into fiefdoms, each one ruled by a security force that seems at least tangentially loyal to whatever government remains, but ultimately cut off from any real central authority and thus left to fend for themselves.
Through this stark land strides Stark (Michael Ironside, from everything), a bounty hunter with a haunted past. He’s bringing a fugitive named Reno (Vanity, The Last Dragon), but discovers that he can’t actually collect her bounty in the city at which he arrives. Instead, he has to travel to Neon City, the major remaining hub of civilization in the region. Travel to Neon City isn’t unusual, but it is dangerous thanks to a gauntlet of brigands, nutcases, and environmental madness. The local lawman wants Stark to ride shotgun with the Neon City Express, the beast of a truck that makes the run with civilian passengers. Stark would rather take his chances on his own, at least until his truck “mysteriously” explodes. Stark and Reno thus end up boarding the armored transport along with a group of other travelers who hope to make the risky run to Neon City, each one with hopes of a better life. If you’ve ever seen the classic John Huston/John Wayne western Stagecoach, you may recognize the scenario. Neon City draws heavily from that movie, and in general, the greater portion of post-apocalypse movies can be easily compared to westerns, though most of them opt for a sort of Sergio Leone vibe — not surprising given the Italian lineage of both Leone westerns and 1980s post-apocalypse movies. So perhaps it’s no accident that the US-produced Neon City looks a bit further back, to American produced westerns of the early era, just as it did in plucking environmental disaster from the 70s.
What this means, however, is that we have an ensemble cast, and as just about any fan of b-movies can tell you, that almost always devolves immediately into poorly written, endless bickering and sniping. The set-up seems to point to exactly that sort of tedium. Besides gruff, angry Stark and his equally pissed off charge, the driver turns out to be Bulk (former football player Lyle Alzedo), Stark’s former partner who stark put away for five years on account of Bulk beating a guy to death. You might think that this ends up being important, but Bulk seems to have adopted a live and let live attitude, so whatever tension might have depended on that dynamic is dissipated pretty quickly. There’s also Sandy (Valerie Wildman), who happens to be Stark’s estranged ex-wife. Seems that whatever government remains in the blighted year of 2053 doesn’t take too kindly to “mutants,” making sure they are killed off at birth. When Stark and Sandy had a child, it suffered from a couple relatively mild abnormalities which the government identified — incorrectly, Sandy maintains — as mutations. So the child was killed. In a rage, Stark decided that Sandy had been covering up some sort of mutation in herself that was manifested in the child. Needless to say, the marriage had as much chance of surviving as the baby.
It may seem contrived for so many people with personal connections to one another to end up on the same trip to Neon City, but it seems there are so few people left that it doesn’t come across as improbable as it might otherwise. Fleshing out the cast are a vaudeville style comedian (Richard Sanders — you know him as Les Nesman), a doctor with abysmal taste in shirts and hairstyles (Nick Klar), a sheltered socialite who’s been riding the collapse of society out in Sweden (Juliet Landau, daughter of Martin and eventual reoccurring actress in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Justice League Unlimited, and a bunch more voice work), and an old Asian guy (Sonny Trinidad). I wasn’t in the mood for ninety minutes of clumsily written character conflict, and luckily, Neon City surprised me. Although we hit some of the expected notes — Stark and Sandy don’t get along, socialite Twink can’t understand why the government allows everything to be so dangerous, Vanity is pissed off at everyone — the movie never wallows in it. Most conflict is dealt with quickly, and we move on. Hell, for the most part, most of the people seem to get along with and help each other, and this is one of the few low budget post-apocalyptic movies where pretty much everyone we’re supposed to like is actually likable. Who ever heard of such a thing?
The only real fly in the ointment is sleazy Dr. Tom, who we know to be an impostor with sociopathic tendencies, but even that is handled in a relatively deft manner. We know the eventual conflict is coming, but we don’t have to sit through endless scenes of “who’s the bad guy.” And in fact, even though he’s the scumbag, he’s also well aware of the fact that he needs to pitch in and help out if any of them are going to survive the run. It seems almost that he doesn’t even want to hurt anyone, but his masquerade as a doctor keeps getting him called upon to perform some actual medical service, for which he has no talent. The only way he sees to cover his ignorance is to make sure the patients tragically pass away. Even though most of the characters are one-note caricatures, they were an easy lot to get along with, especially Sander’s ever chipper Dickie Devine (whom I expected to become odious comic relief, but he never does) and big galoot Bulk.
The expectation is that Alzedo — a former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman who, sadly, passed away shortly after this movie in May of 1992 — will be terrible, or he’ll just do the silent, dangerous act. But he really gives it his all and comes across with a lot of charisma. He has a freak-out scene that’s a little overplayed, but he tears into it with such earnestness that it doesn’t really matter. I’m primed for everyone in these types of movies to be cynical, unsympathetic, and overly acidic. It’s a bit of a joy to discover one where both the script and the performers have decided that maybe it’s OK to actually enjoy the company of the characters. Alzedo’s Bulk could have been the heavy or the jerk. Instead, he’s the center of the film’s charm.
Most of the cast is similarly committed. there’s no sense that anyone was handling this as though they thought it was just some idiotic straight-to-video sci-fi film, and there’s charisma enough to go around. The one failing is in the relationship between Stark and Reno, which is supposed to go from enemies to lovers. Which it does, but with almost no transition or development at all and with no chemistry between the two. But like everything else in this movie, the plot doesn’t linger on it for very long, so you can keep rolling without too much fuss. The relationship between Stark and Reno fails not because of the actors as much as it does the script. Vanity had a lot of natural charm, but the few times I’ve seen her act, she wasn’t all that great. Her character probably could have used more to do and say in this, although limited as it is, it doesn’t give Vanity’s weaknesses as an actress any time to surface. Unlike, perhaps, more current movies, the movie doesn’t try to pass her off as an unstoppable killing machine. She knows her way around a fight, having grown up as an orphan in the wasteland, but she makes believable mistakes and is never anything more than barely competent — just like everyone else.
For his part, Michael Ironside is, well, Michael Ironside. It’ll always be hard for him to convince me he’s actually the good guy, so recognizable is he as a guy who does things like make people’s heads explode. His character, like Vanity’s is the focus of the story while also being the least interesting. He turns in a fine performance. And I really like the idea of Ironside as the hero. He’s in shape but not ripped. He’s losing his hair. He looks like a regular guy with an unusually effective steely-eyed glare. Like everything else in this movie, he looks lived in, worn down, and how you’d expect someone surviving in this future to look. Whether it’s a conscious decision or merely a function of the film’s low budget, no one looks glamorous — not even Vanity, and that’s quite a feat. Well, OK, maybe you can still tell it’s Vanity underneath the rags and ponchos, but even she manages to be convincing otherwise. She was, for those of you who may not remember the 80s quite so clearly, one of several female proteges of Prince when he was at the absolute height of his power. Vanity, Apollonia Kotero, and Sheila E. all tried their hand at acting. Apollonia did OK in Purple Rain and continues to pop up from time to time in TV work. After playing herself in Krush Groove, Sheila E. decided to rely more on the fact that she was the one protege who had a staggering abundance of actual musical talent.
But Vanity…Vanity starred not only in Neon City, which as you may be gathering, I think is a pretty good movie, but also appeared in one of the greatest movies of the 1980s: The Last Dragon. If she never did anything else, those two things alone would qualify her for the much coveted Teleport City Medal of Merit. Sadly, she retired from the business in the middle of the 1990s and launched a career as a born-again evangelist, which I cannot say I have followed as closely as I did her turns in Action Jackson and Tanya’s Island.
And I won’t claim that I’m the only person to own albums by both Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 (as well as most of The Time and Sheila E’s albums, but that’s a lot more common), but that’s got to put me in some sort of elite crowd. I even have a Wendy and Lisa solo albums. Damn, Prince made a lot of money off of me. It’s a wonder I never bought solo albums by “that guy from The Revolution who dressed like a doctor” or “that guy from the Revolution who looked like a less stately version of Prince.”
I do think that the main characters of Reno and Stark are actually the supporting players, and the journey toward redemption for both Wing and Bulk is the film’s real heart. The best scenes belong to Lyle Alzedo and Sonny Trinidad. The friendship that develops between the hulking driver and the wispy old man is far more organic and interesting than the rushed and clumsy romance between Stark and Reno. All in all, though, the cast does well, and even moments of bad acting come across with a naturalness that makes them work with the characters. I think it might have something to do with the fact that director Monte Markham was an actor by trade, having worked for years as a supporting player and one-off character in countless television shows. He got one starring turn, in the series Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but for the most part, he was strictly a one or two appearance performer. So I think he must have a soft spot for supporting casts, which is why they perhaps get the better end of the deal in this script.
Even Twink, who should be the most annoying character, is written and played with sympathy. She’s naive, but she’s basically nice and naive, rather than the usual “bitchy sheltered rich girl,” and that was, after so many years of Sci-Fi Channel movie characters, unbelievably refreshing. Thank God Juliet Landau had the good sense or lack of experience enough to take the tolerable, likable route with the character. She does a lot of work on cartoons I like a like — most notably as Tala on the much missed Justice League cartoon, as well as roles in the more recent Ben Ten series and the direct to DVD movie Green Lantern: First Flight (which, incidentally, was absolutely awesome).
Lest you think this is all character drama, let me assure you that the army of writers that worked on this movie (there were four, though only Markham and Jeff Begun had any experience before — or after — Neon City) never forget to pepper it with action. Stark and the gang are pestered every step of the way by roving gangs of killers, culminating in a few well-executed action scenes and a lot of competently executed action scenes. Neon City is surprisingly adept at balancing character drama and action, and while we’re not looking at stunts and adrenaline on the level of Road Warrior (though the final chase and fight scene is obviously plucked from that movie’s finale), it still manages to be pretty exciting. There are some pretty hairy looking motorcycle crashes, a lot of explosions, and plenty of gunfights.
Tying the whole movie together is the world these characters inhabit. As you no doubt know, post-apocalypse movies tend toward either the grimly dull or the outlandishly cartoony. Neon City does its best to walk the line between the two. Sure we have the biker gangs, and most of the clothes and decor are the typical post-apocalyptic mish-mash of antiques and what people int he 80s thought stuff int he future was going to look like, but it’s all put together with an expert eye. This stuff doesn’t look like prop room leftovers that some thoughtless art director threw together and called the future. It looks lived in. It looks, if not exactly real, then at least awful close to it. There are, of course, anachronisms. Though we’re not entirely certain when things got as bad as they are in 2053, it’s still safe to assume that we would have better computers than the 1980s. At the same time, I always like seeing old computer equipment, and I think anyone who rips into a film from, say, the 1980s for not accurately predicting what computers would like in the future really is missing the point. And int he case of Neon City, it even sort of works. the world is so believably run down and worn out that it almost seems plausible that we’d all be back to using 286 computers with monochrome displays. Similarly, the outside world seems believable enough. Filmed in Utah at least partially during the cold months, Neon City achieves the “driving across the desert” look that was requisite of all post-Road Warrior movies while still being something a little more — though not entirely — unique. It reminded me a lot of the look of an earlier, not as enjoyable post-apocalyptic movie, Warlords of the 21st Century starring Michael Beck.
The movie also gives the characters a believable reason to be farting around out in the wasteland. Unlike many post-apocalypse movies, where people seem to drive around the desert for no reason at all other than it’s cheap to film in the desert and Road Warrior was filmed in a desert, Neon City at least explains it. Our heroes don’t want to be there; it just happens to be the only road to where they need to be. And the biker gangs are out there because, well, they’re bandits. Furthermore, the existence of cities and pockets of civilization, however miserable they may be, lends Neon City an extra dynamic. We get the feeling that things are bad in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Neon City itself seems like a little nation-state, though one that is relatively safe and stable, and apparently the Swedes are getting along just fine. There is a lack of cohesive centralized government in the United States, but it’s not total anarchy. You get the sense that someone, somewhere, is desperately trying to keep things from unraveling any more than they already have.
I was surprised by Neon City. I didn’t expect much from it, but it really entertained me. I like sci-fi films that have nothing to say, and I like sci-fi films that are so preposterously ham-fisted with what they have to say that it becomes absurd. Neon City is the rare sci-fi film that has a little to say and says it well. Not a whole lot, but just enough to give it that extra bit of depth. Mad Max was really the opening salvo in the Reagan era post-apocalypse boom, even though it’s more outrageous sequel became the template. It’s debatable whether or not Neon City is the last film in the trend, but regardless, it’s fitting that it would be among the last and is, in spirit so much more similar to Mad Max than it is Road Warrior. If Neon City has one big weakness, it’s that it’s a good movie. Not a great movie that can enthrall anyone, and not a terrible movie that can amuse anyone. It’s merely good (though I think very good), and that means for it to be entertaining, you have to like it, not like laughing at it. It’s not like indulging in some gloriously ludicrous nonsense like New Barbarians. It’s a pretty serious movie, executed competently, which means it doesn’t have that party film vibe about it. But if you’re looking for some decent sci-fi action, or if you have an affinity for post-apocalypse movies in general, then low-key, modest little Neon City is really a forgotten gem.
HP Lovecraft, much discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was either born or transferred into this world from a watery beyond in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was but three years old, and the elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Loevcraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read old gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and Lovecraft led a nearly hermetic existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.
The third film in the installment represents the point at which I originally stopped watching. This one represents the point at which I stopped being aware at all that they were still making Hellraiser films. Tagged by many as “Hellraiser in space,” it just seemed to silly at the time, and it came during a time when pretty much everyone from Jason Vorhees to Leprechaun was getting shuttled off into space (though I suspect this film drew inspiration less from them and more from Event Horizon). Years after the fact, I actually find the idea of Hellraiser expanding out into space to be a fairly promising, if underealized in this film, premise that lends the series a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic scope. Potential aside, however, Bloodlines fails to hit the mark, though it turns out it’s not nearly as bad a film as I originally assumed it would be.
The action skips back and forth through time, beginning in the future with an engineer (Bruce Ramsay) who has designed a space station with the sole purpose summoning and permanently trapping Pinhead and his Cenobites. Unfortunately, just as the Cenobites make their appearance — and thankfully,we’re back to a more authentic line-up, with Camcorder-Head and CD-Head being left on the scrapheap of the third film — stanrd issue space marines storm the facility, halt the experiment, and demand to know what the hell the engineer is up to. And so kicks off his lengthy tale, which takes us to 18th century France where we meet his ancestor, the toymaker — and the original designer of the maligned Lament Configuration puzzle box that has caused so many people to have their skin pulled off by hooky chain things.
The toymaker doesn’t realize at first exactly what it is he’s been commissioned to make by a twisted Marquis DeSade style nobleman who longs to indulge himself in the pleasures and pains that exist just beyond the reach of our dimension. He soon finds out, though, and in his mad struggle to undo what horror he has brought into the world, the toymaker assures that all those of his bloodline will be motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, to seek out the box and devise some way to destroy it.
The first demon called forth from the box isn’t any of the Cenobites we know and love, but is instead a more standard issue succubus type named Angelique (Valentina Vargas). Just as the toymaker’s bloodline carries the innate desire to undo the box’s making, she exists through the ages to protect it and see that it gets used. Which takes us to 1996, when we learn tat one of the toymaker’s descendants is the architect who designed the Lament Configuration-inspired building we see at the end of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Like his ancestor, he has no idea at first what he’s done, but the memory of blood begins to kick in once the she-demon shows up, and before too long, he’s struggling with his own creation while trying to protect his family from the destructive forces the design unleashes. Which means it’s about time for Pinhead to show up, and this time he’s brought better Cenobites, including his very own hound of Hell.
His story brings us back to the future, and the marines’ quickly learn the bloody price of their intervention in the trap. We get a fairly standard Aliens-inspired “marines walk around in dark corridors and get killed in gruesome ways” sequence before the engineer finally settles in for what they bill as the final show-down between good and evil.
This movie’s failings aren’t in what it does, but rather in what it could have done. There’s a lot of potential that gets squandered, either because they didn’t have much imagination or because they just didn’t have the cash to realize the epic scope of the story at which this film hints. The space station is a suitable progression for the series, and it lends a desolate air of isolation and melancholy on top of the usual talk about flesh and suffering. Something about Pinhead against a backdrop of cold metal and circuits is more chilling than seeing him try to be menacing while standing in someone’s well-appointed living room. I think the concept of demons from another dimension works well with the outer space setting, given how little we know of space and how vulnerable we are while in it. And I like the idea of technology advancing to the point where it can mess with the design of the box. The engineer uses a robot, for example, to open the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites first appear, they seem genuinely confused.
The other time periods are well-realized as well. The French bit conjures up a nice, if low-scale, Hellfire Club sort of atmosphere, and the parts set in 1996 avoid the banality of a 1996 setting by having the action take place mostly in the bowels of the bizarre building our protagonist has constructed. And did I mention that there’s no sign of the Camcorder-Head Cenobite with the one-liners and the mustache? After descending into wisecracking parody in part three, the Cenobites pull back a little bit and return to a relatively serious state. Plus, Pinhead gets his best line in the whole series (Merchant: “And what do you have faith in?” Pinhead: “Nothing. I am so exquisitely empty.”)
Unfortunately, these ideas remain half-baked or merely hinted at, and it’s that failure to be what it could have been that prevents this movie from being one of the best entries in the series. Instead, it is merely good, with some nice shocks, a tepid lead, fair writing, and the usual quality performance from Douglas Bradley as Pinhead. Actually, the acting this time around is a quantum leap up from the awful stuff we saw in the last film. Skipping back and forth through time works well, and the revelation as to the origin of the box, while uninspired, isn’t terrible. I was able to role with it better than I was the “Pinhead discovers his human side” bit from the second film.
With more money and just a little bit more time to expand on ideas presented in the script, this could have been one hell of a movie. But we can only review what he have in the end, and that’s a movie that I think is a definite step up from the sublimely idiotic part three, with better actors, a better script, and a creepier atmosphere. First-time (only time) director Kevin Yagher had a more epic — and apparently more graphic — vision of what this film should have been as well, but he and the money men could never get on the same page. Thus the film was edited without his input, and he felt the need to make this an Alan Smithee film. Bloodlines also marks the end of Clive Barker’s involvement with the series, though it’s questionable how much the “executive producer” had to do with part three, as it does mark the final contribution of Peter Atkins, who’d been scripting the movies since part two. Part four feels more in line with the first two movie while falling just short of the mark that would have made it a truly worthy sequel. All in all, though, I feel my suspicions toward this film were largely unfounded.
So when you’ve taken Pinhead to the ends of outer space, where do you go from there?
Back when I was little, parents used to teach you things by letting you do something stupid, and then hoping that the consequences of what you’d just done would inform you as to why you should not have done it in the first place. A minor burn from a hot pot or open fire was a far more effective way of teaching a kid not to touch hot things than simply telling them. I, unfortunately, am an idiot, and even to this day, when I see fire, my initial reaction is, “Man, I bet I could catch it this time!”
Similarly, I’ve never learned that doing a marathon viewing of an awful movie series is never as funny an idea as I think it is. This started back in college, when my roommate and I thought it wold be hilarious to watch all the Porky’s films in one sitting. The sickness continues to this very day, with no lesson learned in the interim despite ample experience to teach me. And so I found myself one day sitting around with a stack of Hellraiser movies.
I, like many people, loved the first two Hellraiser films, and as they garner some modicum of respect, I decided it was best to skip over them and go directly to the one featuring a wisecracking Cenobite with a video camera embedded in his head. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth represents a quantum leap downward from the first two films — disappointing not just because of the drop in quality, but also because this was supposed to be something of a “Pinhead and crew run wild on Earth” scenario. In reality, the rampage through New York City of these demons called forth from another realm by way of a cursed puzzle box ends up looking more like Jason’s five minute jaunt through Manhattan in Friday the 13th, Part 8.
For those who don’t know the Hellraiser story, here it is in a nutshell: a long time ago, someone made a puzzle box. The box happens to be a key to opening a door to Hell, and out of it come creatures known to fans as the Cenobites. The Cenobites, lead by the now iconic Pinhead, are dedicated to pushing the humans who summon them into the extremes of pain/pleasure, something that is usually expressed via hooked chains shooting out of the ether and ripping the person apart — which always seemed to me to be a bit of a gyp in terms of the pain/pleasure ratio, but I guess that’s what you get for fooling around with an undead guy whose head is covered in pins.
At the end of part two, the Cenobites were defeated, the puzzle box lost but that didn’t last for very long. Part three picks up with a skeevy young guy who owns the most ridiculous combination of fancy five-star restaurant playing “String Quintet In E Major, Op.13, No.5 – Minuet” and fake industrial goth club decorated with S&M teddy bears. He buys a horrific sculpture that we know to be the current prison of Pinhead. Meanwhile, plucky young reporter Terry Farrell is trying to make a name for herself. When at a hospital, she stumbles upon a screaming young man embedded with hooked chains. He eventually explodes, and this puts her on the track leading to the goth club, which is supposed to be the most awesome underground goth club ever, except that it’s full of early 1990s frat guy types.
Eventually, of course, Pinhead will be released from his prison and, after creating a new army of Cenobites to replace the ones he lost last movie, he will go on the aforementioned rampage through New York, which means he mostly goes on a casual stroll through a deserted movie set and makes some manhole covers blow up.The reporter will have to team up with the ghost of Pinhead’s former self in hopes of defeating the lord of Hell in a fairly unmemorable final showdown.
It’s all pretty tepid stuff, but it’s still watchable despite being such a letdown. Pinhead at least gets to massacre a club full of fake movie goths, so I guess that counts for something. But mostly, the whole thing is just a letdown. Pinhead’s new Cenobites are completely ludicrous and possess none of the menace of the previous batch. Instead, this time around, we got a guy who throws CDs at people and a guy with a video camera in his head — and a mustache! What the hell kind of a demon has a droopy Southern rock mustache? This is ground zero for the Cenobites being transformed from creatures of evil and terror into wisecracking goofballs.
The acting is almost uniformly terrible with the exception of Douglas Bradley, the guy who plays Pinhead. But even Pinhead doesn’t escape completely unscathed, as he is put through a number of ham-fisted “shock” scenes, such as the completely ludicrous bit that takes place in a church and has Pinhead assuming “The Jesus pose.” We get it, we get it! It’s ironic!
Terry Farrell was a couple years away from fame and the lust of sci-fi nerds everywhere thanks to her role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and she’s pretty terrible here. At least she’s in like company. Still, despite all that, the movie manages to be watchable and even entertaining in a pretty lame way. There’s still some decent scenes, a fleeting vestige of “that ol’ Hellraiser magic,” Pinhead is in decent form, and if nothing else, it’s a lot better than what Hellraiser would have in store for us later on down the road.
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
Anyway, as much as we pointed and laughed at Angelfist, which also triumphantly proclaimed “Starring Eight Billion Time American Karate Champion Cat Sassoon” or something to that effect, we never actually got around to renting it. At the time, we had so many old Shaw Bros. and Ocean Shores releases to work through that piddling around with a Roger Corman karate movie seemed rather a poor use of our time. Alas, I was so young and naive back then, and in my then recently discovered fervor for Hong Kong action cinema, I turned my nose up at so many films that… well… deserved to have noses turned up around them. But now I know better and willingly embrace such films. Thus, back when skinnyguy.com was still around and you could buy 50 crappy VHS action and kungfu films for like five bucks, I ended up with my very own copy of Angelfist, along with about a hundred Godfrey Ho/Thomas Tang/Joseph Lai ninja movies starring Richard Harrison. So whenever I complain to you about my financial woes, you can always respond by going, “Don’t you own copies of Ninja Phantom Heroes and Diamond Ninja Force?” And I will have to hang my head in shame, even if deep inside I am secretly proud of owning such movies.
Just as I was pleased that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” is not a description of a single film but of an entire genre, so too am I happy that “movies featuring nude kickboxing” yields expansive enough results that I can sit back and say, “You know, I think I’m going to become an expert in films that feature nude kickboxing.” Angelfist certainly doesn’t fail to deliver in the nude kickboxing arena, though it does fail to deliver in just about every aspect that a movie might otherwise strive to achieve. It joins a storied list of films that includes Angel of Destruction, Redline, Girls on the Run, Rolls Royce Baby, Naked Fist, and Kungfu Leung Strikes Emanuelle in my collection of nude kickboxing movies. Rolls Royce Baby in particular teaches us that there’s nothing appealing about watching a sleazy Eurotrash lounge lizard do full frontal nude katas. In general, nude karate is not a sport that lends itself to the male anatomy, though I don’t begrudge any man who chooses to make it his chosen form of exercise. If only they’d had the good sense to accompany his workout with a similar scene of Lina Romay, but she’s spending too much time in that movie standing on her head while nude for no good reason other than it never hurts to feature Lina Romay nude and standing on her head. I know there are plenty of other films out there featuring nude martial arts, and I intend, one by one and while dressed like Coffin Joe, to possess them all.
So it turns out the awkward looking blonde on the video box isn’t Cat Sassoon at all. We’ll get to the blonde later. It turns out Cat Sassoon is the daughter (in real life, that is) of shampoo empire tyrant Vidal Sassoon, who I assume achieved his high rank in society through liberal use of karate fighting thugs, and even now he forces hobos and prostitutes to fight in underground martial arts tournaments where the combat takes place in huge pools of mousse. Catya’s biography is one of a typical “live fast, die young” (she did both) Hollywood kid, and I’m not sure at what point she picked up the various karate championships the movie celebrates as being in her possession (actually, she picked them up when Roger Corman invented them and assigned them to her via movie poster). She seems to have spent most of her short life doing drugs and being a supermodel thanks, in large part, to the fact that she was the daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams. At some point, she parlayed her modeling and “daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams” gig into a movie career and appeared in the film Tuff Turf, the movie that had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a bad-ass. From there, it was straight to the bottom of the barrel, and before too long she found herself in The Philippines working in films by our main man, Cirio Santiago.
As far as authentic martial arts bad-assery, and despite the claims made on the cover of this movie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Cat Sassoon was possibly one of the very worst of the many “next female martial arts superstars” that surfaced in the 80s and 90s with dubious claims about winning international tournaments and Vidal Sassoon Hair Mousse Kumites. She’s definitely not to be measured alongside actual bad-asses like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, both of whom made awesome movies in Hong Kong before coming back to America to make movies that were just awesomely bad. But they both knew their stuff, cut their teeth in Hong Kong, and had easy to verify martial arts careers. The waters get murky really quickly beyond them, though.
I’m ranking Sassoon — who must have been slapped on the back while eating lemons, thus freezing her face in an expression of pouty disgust (Joe Bob Briggs described her as having “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist”) — below Mimi Lesseos (who at least worked as pro wrestler before trying her hand at being the next direct-to-video female martial arts superstar), although Angelfist is remarkably better than anything Mimi Lesseos ever starred in. Probably above Maria Ford, who did time in her own bargain basement Filipino nude kickboxing movie, Angel of Destruction). It’s a hard call. And maybe above some of the women who tried to do martial arts in various Andy Sidaris T&A masterpieces. But whatever the case, when you’re locked in a battle for last with Maria Ford and former Playboy Playmates, well, you’re a long way from the surface. Plus, the trailer for Angel of Destruction has the narrator saying “She gets caught between a rock…and a hard place!” as they show Maria Ford kicking a rapist in the balls, so that might actually get the edge.
The claim is that she’s a “WKA North American Forms and Weapons champion,” but if this is true, the WKA doesn’t seem aware of it. Of course, I suppose Cirio Santiago could have created a different WKA than the World Kickboxing Association. Maybe it stands for “Women Kick Ass” or “Wonderfully Krappy Awfulness.” I think everyone who ever starred in a martial arts movie got to be the champion of some organization or tournament. In 1992, my friends and I shot about two minutes of an epic we were going to make about a Misfits-loving zombie who returns from the grave, is disillusioned by how punk went all hippie-crusty or metal, and so decides to destroy the world, with only the staff of a local Chinese restaurant to stop him. I think as a result of filming those two minutes, which consisted I think of footage of me jumping over a railing in a parking garage, I became de facto two time world champion in forms and combat for the Global Regional Karate Union of North Florida.
So if we’re going to drown at the bottom of the barrel with the late Cat Sassoon, we might as well do it in the company of another daft movie by Cirio Santiago. Of course, this movie, with its gratuitous martial arts tournament footage, is positively rational compared to some of his more feverish efforts, but that still leaves plenty of room for you to shake your head and say, “No! No. Wait, what?” The gist of the thing is this: while either vacationing or working as a photographer or participating in a karate tournament, a woman named Kristie (Sibel Birzag, who appeared in Angelfist and…oh, just Angelfist) catches an assassination on film. Although she phones the American embassy with news that one of their top generals has just been murdered by dudes with pantyhose on their head, and that she has photographic evidence, no one seems to consider it all that big a deal. Must be the same army as we saw in American Ninja, where the continuous slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of Filipino ninja hijackers didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow. So rather than go into the embassy or the police or anything, she goes and competes in a round or two at a karate tournament where all the women wear sexy leotards, halter tops, and thongs instead of actual martial arts clothing. She then has the film delivered not to the embassy or the police, but to a friend who works as a nude dancer at a club that specializes in the world’s least enthusiastic stripping. And then, of course, she gets murdered.
When the woman’s Los Angeles cop sister (Cat Sassoon) gets wind of the murder, she travels to the Philippines to solve the case and deal out plodding kungfu justice to those responsible, even though the local authorities use the “I know you’re a cop back in LA, but this is Manila. We do things different here,” shtick, which has never deterred a single rogue cop ever. It’s no more effective than “I just spent the entire morning getting my ass chewed out by the mayor,” or “your methods are too extreme, Inspector Nico!”
Along the way, Cat will enter the martial arts tournament in place of her sister, since movies have taught us that all gangsters and would-be revolutionaries are also shady martial arts tournament promoters. Ostensibly, this has something to do with getting close to…I don’t know. There were some Mexican drug dealers, or something, and some of the revolutionaries responsible for the murder are involved. Look, I sort of lost track, so I’m going to say that Cat enters the tournament so that she can keep land developers from knocking down the local community center in order to make room for a shopping mall. The primary purpose of the tournament really is to pad out the film’s running time with lots of really bad martial arts bouts and only slightly more interesting shower scenes in which Cat Sassoon proves that no amount of shampoo empire money can buy you decent martial arts skills or a decent pair of fake boobs in the early 1990s. I’m sure hers, which she shows often in this film, cost a lot of money, but that doesn’t stop them from looking like someone took a couple honeydews, wrapped them in those pointy little knit caps worn by Tibetans and hippies, then strapped them to Cat’s chest. Thhis is one of those extremely rare moments where the nudity comes and I say, “You know, why don’t we just put those away for now?”
Anyway, you better get used to them, because as I said, she pulls them out pretty often, God bless ‘er, including during a scene where she is attacked in her hotel room by a bunch of ninjas and has to fight them off while wearing nothing but a pair of panties. The two most striking things about this scene are how awful Cat’s martial arts are, and how no matter how much she tumbles and stumble around, her breasts remain completely motionless, like a couple of gyroscopes with a fake tan.
And she’s not alone. Joining her in her quest to showcase gratuitous boob shots and astoundingly awful karate fights is lovely Melissa Moore (and her much more natural breasts), a Versailles (that’s vur-sails to y’all — if the French didn’t want you to pronounce the “L’s” then they shouldn’t have put them in the word), Kentucky native who found herself slumming it in all sorts of movies like Hard to Die, Vampire Cop, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among many others. The martial arts she showcases in the film don’t look any less awkward. You know though, maybe it’s me. I mean, I’m no kungfu master, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the proper fighting stance for the martial art they’re using is indeed to curl your arms up like an Incan ice mummy and mash them against your chest.
Whatever the case, I like Melissa regardless, even though her part consists mostly of sitting in the audience and watching Cat fight while nodding to herself. Well, when she’s not busy taking showers. And apparently someone else likes her too, because there’s a comic book about her, Melissa Moore, Bodyguard from Draculina Publishing. I’m not a big reader of comic books, so I don’t know too much about it. Somehow, I think that even if I was a big reader of comic books, I still wouldn’t know too much about it. Never the less, I’m still glad it exists.
So now that I’ve had some fun ribbing the ladies, let me say that I love that both of them are willing to give their all, however much that may be, for a movie like this. I mean, good or bad, Moore and Sassoon are in there, taking their lumps and starring in crummy kungfu films. I love ‘em both for it. Working the Corman-Santiago Manila circuit can’t be steak and onions, as stories from the likes of Walter Hill and Pam Grier attest to. And I don’t know about Melissa Moore, but Cat Sassoon certainly didn’t have to do anything more than sit back and live off the sudsy wealth of her family. Instead, she went to the Philippines and made low-budget action films. Good for her! And as for Moore — what can I say? I have a soft spot for Kentucky girls. I’d love to do a long interview with her or pay to have her write a book. As I’ve said many times before and will doubtless say as long as I keep reviewing crappy low budget Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, the stories behind these films are probably way more interesting than both the films themselves and the making of stories behind the standard Hollywood project. So if I poke fun at the ladies, it’s done out of love and with nothing but good nature.
Not so much, though, for the comedy relief male sidekick and the usual host of “You kicked their ass? But…but…you’re a woman!” and “That was amazing! Could you teach me some of that kungfu jazz?” shtick that invariably follows him and his Chess King wardrobe around. And since I’ve cracked jokes at the expense of poor Cat Sassoon, who wanted nothing more than to make shitty kungfu films and show us her fake boobs as often as possible (and don’t think I don’t appreciate her for that), I might as well mention that actor Michael Shaner looks like someone mashed Matthew Modine and John Malkovich together. There’s something not quite human about him, like he’s a clay-faced shape shifter doing its best to approximate what a human douchebag looks like. The big difference between Shaner and Sassoon is that by the end of the movie, Sassoon’s crappy acting, terrible martial arts, willingness to show off her weird fake boobs, and her overall strange appearance won me over. Heck, I’m ready to buy more Cat Sassoon action films on 50 cent VHS. Conversely, I want to punch Shaner in the face, even though I know it’s sculpted out of clay and butterscotch pudding, or whatever shape shifters are made of. You know what, Shaner? Your wardrobe isn’t even good enough to be Chess King.
Both Moore and Sassoon turn in nude kickboxing scenes, though I think Moore’s only counts half a point since it’s just a ripped shirt. But Sassoon goes full on, in just her lacy red panties, showing off her otherworldly fake boobs and accompanying fake tan that, coupled with the oily misting job they did on her to give her that fresh out of the shower appearance, makes her look like a particularly aggressive Nathan’s brand hot dog. This is without a doubt the second finest nude kickboxing scene I’ve witnessed (it’s going to be hard to beat the scene from Girls on the Run, though, because that’s a nude kickboxing scene directed by Cory Yuen Kwai). But Cat Sassoon holds nothing back. She throws all her energy into the scene, jumping around awkwardly, growling, yelling, and a few times doing spinning kicks while her face is obscured by a huge dollop of Vaseline or something on the lens.
I think they might have been trying to obscure the fact that a male stuntman with fake orange boobs attached to him was standing in for Sassoon. If that’s the case, oh man! What must that guy’s day have been like? One stuntman shows up and hears, “Well, you’re in the fight, and Cat Sassoon is going to be all greased up and naked, and she’s going to kick you then straddle your face.” And yeah, Cat may look a little weird, but whatever man, and if she’s nude and straddling my face then I still call that a good day at work. So the other stuntman is like, “This is gonna be an awesome day!” until he finds out that his job is to grease up, put on fake boobs and a pair of red lace panties, and be a stand-in for a nude kickboxing woman. And then his children will ask, “What did you do at work today, daddy?”
The rest of the cast seems comprised largely of Filipino kickboxing women who show up for matches and disappear again during the shower scenes (I’ve never seen a Filipino martial arts tournament locker room with so many white women in it). I guess most of these women have some actual martial arts background, but that doesn’t matter all that much since real life tournament martial arts are pretty boring to watch if you’re not an avid practitioner. They’re not any better here and are probably somewhat worse. There are also a couple rebels, and the usual assortment of white guys playing generals, diplomats, and other figures of authority. None of them are really worth mentioning. There is a guy named Mr. Carrion, which I suppose is a slightly better name than Mr. Rottin’ Guts McGee, but just barely.
This is one of the films, one of the many films, that force me to grapple with an assortment of moral questions related to passing judgment. Because this is a terrible, terrible movie, and I like it. It’s completely idiotic, and I like it. I have no justification for this adoration, and certainly I hesitate to tell others they should check it out. The acting is bad, the martial arts are worse, and the direction is nondescript. But like Cat Sassoon herself, somehow all the negatives add up to a decently dumb and entertaining 80 minutes. The action may indeed be bad, but there’s a lot of it. Like Melissa Moore and Cat Sassoon, all this movie wants to do is entertain you. And like its stars, the results are pretty feeble even if the effort is enthusiastic. Liking bad movies is pretty common. Liking bad martial arts movies is a much more, let’s say exclusive, calling. They’re still way easier to like than bad comedies and bad Steven Seagal films, but in a genre where bad stories and acting are glossed over in light of good action scenes, you better have good action scenes. When you don’t, there’s not much going on.
Except, you know, nude kickboxing.
Odd that movies like this are why, in the 1990s, I would write long screeds about how dreadful American martial arts movies are and how it’s a shame the US isn’t paying more attention to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now that the US is paying more attention to those guys — a bit too late for them to really deliver much that is worth paying attention to, sadly — I find that the crummy little low-budget productions from America and the Philippines have grown more attractive to me. And isn’t it funny that a number of the Hong Kong action stars of the 80s and 90s, once the action boom faded, sought to ply their trade in The Philippines. Somewhere in Hong Kong, the Chinese Roger Corman has Yuen Biao and Yukari Oshima in his office and is, no doubt, reaching for the bright red rotary dial phone that connects all producers in the world directly to the ghost of Cirio Santiago.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Philippines and United States | Starring: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Sibel Birzag, Tony Carreon, John Crank, Roland Dantes, Sheila Lintan, Ken Metcalfe | Writer: Anthony Greene | Director: Cirio Santiago | Cinematographer: Joe Batac | Music: Stephen Cohn | Producer: Cirio Santiago and Roger Corman | Alternate Titles: Fatal Angel
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.
There are those in the world who write about the career of Rutger Hauer in much the same way that other people write about the film career of Elvis Presley, the general approach being one of “ain’t that a damn shame?” Hauer made a name for himself in America when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s seminal dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as Roy Batty, the leader of a gang of renegade androids being hunted down by Harrison Ford, presumably because they kidnapped his family or were on his plane without first obtaining the proper permissions. Hauer was already a familiar face to the ten non-Dutch people who watch Dutch films, and among that small population, the five fans of Dutch cinema who would actually watch Paul Verhoven films. When he appeared as a ruthless terrorist in Night Hawks, people started to take notice. Here was something interesting about the guy. And something scary. When a screenwriter told you Rutger Hauer was a murderous madman, you believed them.
A year later, Blade Runner catapulted Hauer into even wider American consciousness, and it seemed like he was destined for great things. But Blade Runner wasn’t quite the hit then that it has become today. Shortly thereafter, he appeared in the fantasy film Ladyhawke, which while not a blockbuster, certainly earned its fair share of fans and let Americans see Hauer as something more than a scary cyborg who howls, drives nails through his own palm, and spends his spare time catching pigeons and jumping around on rooftops. Hauer went on to appear in a string of modest genre hits throughout the 1980s, including The Hitcher, where he fed Pony Boy severed fingers, Flesh + Blood, where he competed for screen time with the frequently nude Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Blood of Heroes, where he and Joan Chen got to slam dog skulls onto a stick in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, while each of these films found an audience, none of them became much more than cult hits. Hauer’s intensity, his on-screen charisma, and his scary-yet-hot look seemed to imply that he was going to be big, just as soon as he found the right movie. And then something weird happened.
Exactly when and where, I can’t say for certain, though I’m willing to say things started to derail round about Blind Fury, which casts Hauer as a blind swordsman fighting the Mob. The modern-day mob, that is, the one with guns and hand grenades and black Crown Victorias; the one that would probably be able to kill just about any swordsman, let alone a blind one. Couple that with the movie where Hauer played a rogue cop who doesn’t play by the rules, battling evil terrorist Gene Simmons, and things really start to wobble. His long-anticipated portrayal of the vampire Lestat (Apparently he was Anne Rice’s personal choice) never happened, and by the time the movie was made, Hauer was too old, and the role went to Tom Cruise.
Throughout the 1990s, Hauer appeared in a series of misfires coupled with small roles (usually as the villain) in films with cult followings, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which wasn’t a hit at the time) and a role in the Most Dangerous Game inspired Surviving the Game, where he got to hunt Ice T. After initial excitement Hauer generated when he made the leap to America, it seems like studios lost any faith in him as a draw. Before too long, he found himself in direct to video film hell, and there he has remained alongside Seagal, Van Damme, and Mark Dacascos (actually, frequently alongside Mark Dacascos), emerging from time to time to appear in a supporting role in higher profile projects like Batman Begins and Smallville.
You could bemoan the state of his career and look at his appearance in things like Dracula III and Scorcher as something to be sad about as you think about what could have been. On the other hand, Hauer is one of that breed of actor who works consistently, averaging four or five movies a year, getting free vacations to whatever location is being used that week, and showing up for small roles in big films at least once a year. Most actors would be more than happy to fail in the way Hauer has failed.
Redline, which was originally titled Deathline, has nothing to do with the underground street racing circuit. For a movie about that, you will have to go see Redline — the one that features a car on the front cover, instead of Rutger Hauer. Both movies feature lots of hot ladies in really tiny mini-skirts. But the Redline we want is a movie that sees Hauer and his partners Merrick (Dacascos, who is Russian this week) and Marina (Yvonne Scio) as a trio of smugglers in the Russia of the near future, running some sort of biotech you would assume becomes central to the plot at some point. It never does, but it does give us an early opportunity for Merrick and Marina to betray Hauer’s Wade and shoot him dead, presumably over the lack of judgment he demonstrates in choosing his outfit from the Glenn Fry “Smuggler’s Blues” collection at Sears. Merrick then gets to be doubly evil, thus justifying his growing of a goatee, by betraying Marina as well. The corpses are picked up by Russian police, and for some reason Special Prosecutor Vanya (Randall William Cook) decides to use top secret military technology to bring Wade back from the dead. Thus revived, Wade promptly sets out to do two things: see some boobs, and kill Merrick.
Wade seems to have very little problem with the first task, as the Russia of the near future is much like the Russia of the present: full of hot chicks in skimpy outfits, dancing to bad techno music. Somehow, among all the aspiring models, porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes that Eastern Europe has to throw at him, Wade ends up meeting Katya (also Scio), who happens to look just like Marina. One would expect that this, a story about a resurrected man on a mission of vengeance encountering the a woman who is the spitting image of his deceased true love, would then go right into Rutger Hauer getting wrapped up like a mummy and doing that stiff-armed swat to the shoulder that has killed so many old British guys who dared disturb the tomb of Amon-Ra. Instead, it just continues with the second of Wade’s goals, which is to kill Merrick, who has become a player in the Russian mob, though one whose position seems tenuous. I reckon the Russian mob has a thirty-day trial period like any business thinking of hiring a contractor to a full time position.
Of course, if that was the plot, this movie would be far too simple. So we get layer upon layer of ulterior motives. Why did Vanya bring Wade back from the dead? Why do they keep cutting to random scenes of the Russian president (Agnes Banfalvi) giving speeches? Why is Katya helping Wade? Does Mark Dacascos own any shirts, and if he does, is he capable of buttoning the top few buttons? Is there going to be an ill-advised fight scene between Dacascos and Hauer? On the way to answering these and other questions the movie won’t make you care about very much, we get to see Rutger Hauer shoot a lot of people. He also gets beat up by a naked female body builder and a topless female boxer who seem to be hanging out in a mansion-turned-nightclub for no real reason other than all Russian mob meetings include a techno dance party and naked female boxers and bodybuilders, gets to have sex with a couple women in a shower (oh yes — there will be naked Rutger Hauer), gets to have sex with Yvonne Scio, and probably does it a few more times, but I lost track. So if you’ve been looking for a movie where most of the running time is devoted to Rutger Hauer shooting and screwing, this is your lucky day.
There not much in the way of redeeming factors for this film, but that’s never stopped me before. I seem to have a limitless capacity to appreciate dumb direct to DVD movies starring Rutger Hauer and/or Mark Dacascos. Couple that with my previously established weakness for what most of the world considers two-star sci-fi films, and I really had no hope of coming out of Redline as a member of the minority of people who actually enjoyed the film. It’s science fiction only in the most bare-boned sense. Hauer and his pals run illegal biotech, but that never matters. There are devices that let you have VR-style dreams, mostly about banging a couple hot Russian chicks in the shower, but we already have the internet, which is full of places where you can go to pretend you are banging two hot Russian chicks in the shower. The future looks pretty much like the present — which probably isn’t that far off from the truth — and the remnants of Soviet Russia that are littered around lend the film an interesting look. The sprawling mansions, underground dance clubs, and crumbling Soviet-era tenements afford the film a cheap but convincing setting that is a far cry from Blade Runner but better than, say, Flash Future Kungfu.
Hauer’s performances can be hit or miss, depending on his mood. He’s actually fairly engaging in this movie, even if he spends half of it on autopilot. There are moments when he actually acts, and you get to see a little flash of the magic that Hauer once possessed. He’s a little heavier these days than when he played the ultimate combat cyborg and ran around in little black leather biker shorts (obviously purchased from the same store Sting shopped at for Dune), but for a cat in his 50s, he’s still doing OK, and he certainly looks to be in better shape for this film that he was in a lot of his previous direct to video outings — possibly because he knew he was going to be in the nude, as they say, though not as frequently as his female co-star, Yvonne Scio.
Scio’s a beauty (I’d go with Kylie Minogue beets Anna Falchi), and she’s a far better actress than one usually expects from these sorts of films. Redline seems to be her first English language film after a career in her native Italy. Since then, she’s appeared in some bit parts, some television shows, and probably most notable to the sort of people who frequent Teleport City, the Sci-Fi Channel original movie A.I. Assault. I quite like her. She has natural charisma and energy, and even though she’s from the “skinny ass-kicker” mold I so rarely buy into, she handles the action scenes believably. The final revelation regarding her character is somewhat ridiculous, but then, pretty much everything about this movie is somewhat ridiculous. Plus, she’s an actual woman, born in 1969, not a teenager, and she’s kept her freckles. Yeah, I dig Yvonne Scio.
Completing the main cast is our man Mark Dacascos, the Don “The Dragon” Wilson of the 21st century. Dacascos got his start back in the 80s, with a series of bit parts and minor television roles. In 1993, he starred in a movie called Only the Strong, which tried unsuccessfully to convince people that a martial arts based danced practiced mostly by dumpy hippy chicks in dirty linen pants and white dudes with dreadlocks and devil sticks was somehow awesome and the preferred style of combat for all vicious street thugs in Rio, who apparently are more than willing to put their bloodlust on hold long enough for the resident dude with a boom box to find a song with the right rhythm for the fight. While that movie may not have been any more successful than Rooftops at convincing us that capoeira would ever defeat gymkata or Tony Jaa with big-ass elephant tusks strapped to his arms, it did convince a lot of people that Dacascos was someone on which they should keep an eye. In the early 1990s, a lot of Americans were discovering Hong Kong cinema and getting caught up in the films of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao (among others). So the folks prone to paying attention to such things wondered if there wasn’t an American star who could even come close. Exposure to Chan’s hyper-kinetic, stunt-driven action style meant that audiences were no longer going to buy into guys like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The answer from the U.S. seemed to come in the form of one of two people: Brandon Lee or Mark Dacascos. But then Brandon died, and Dacascos just never clicked with audiences. He went on to star in Double Dragon, a movie that asked audiences to believe that Mark Dacascos would play second kungfu fiddle to a guy from Party of Five — the most unbalanced kungfu match-up since Bruce Lee fought Gig Young. Dacascos then became the go-to guy for direct to video action films now that Don Wilson was slowing down, and they were unable to fit anymore numerals after the Bloodfist title. Even in DTV hell, Dacascos managed to shine from time to time. He starred in both Crying Freeman and Sanctuary, two adaptations of manga drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. When they adapted The Crow for a television, Dacascos played the role formerly inhabited by Brandon Lee (more or less — I know they are all supposed to be different Crows, but really — a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up is a vengeful kungfu ghost in mime make-up). He appeared in the rotten Hong Kong action film China Strike Force, a movie that decided the final fight shouldn’t be between Dacascos and Aaron Kwok (two actors who know how to fight on screen), but should instead be between Kwok and Coolio…on top of a precariously balanced sheet of glass, meaning that 1) the fight consists mostly of the guys trying to keep their balance and 2) the fight would have stunk anyway, because it was Coolio versus Aaron Kwok. Shortly thereafter, he reminded people how awesome he could be when he showed up in Chris Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf as a silent native American bad-ass.
Since then, he settled into a comfortable and prolific career in movies only people like us would ever watch, including Solar Strike, The Hunt for Eagle One, Alien Agent, and of more recent infamy, I Am Omega, The Asylum film studio’s quickie rip-off of both The Omega Man and I Am Legend (Asylum being the people who gave us such films as Snakes on a Train, The Da Vinci Treasure, and Pirates of Treasure Island, among countless others). Although he usually ends up throwing a punch or a kick here and there, these days he relies very little on his athleticism and martial arts prowess, concentrating instead on his ability to sit in hot tubs, shoot people, and pass for pretty much ethnicity the screenplay calls for.
He also seems to appear with shocking frequency alongside Rutger Hauer, making them sort of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of crappy direct to video action and sci-fi films. The partnership that began here with Redline continued with Scorcher and not one but two Hunt for Eagle One movies. Here’s to wishing them a long and fruitful joint career as the lords of direct to video action films.
Speaking of the lords of direct to video, you can’t escape any discussion of Redline — and lord knows the world is crawling with people who want to discuss a sci-fi action film in which Rutger Hauer gets beat up by a naked female bodybuilder — without mentioning the director, Tibor Takacs. The man is responsible for at least one film a week that plays on the Sci-Fi Channel. He’s perhaps best known for directing the 1987 cult classic The Gate, but since then he’s blessed the world with a whole slew of horrible crap that I seem to watch with alarming regularity and joy: Viper, Tornado Warning, Rats, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Ice Spiders, Mega Snake…Mansquito! He gave the world Mansquito, for crying out loud! And somewhere in there, he managed to direct a Sabrina the Teenage Witch film. His relationship with Dacascos goes as far back as Sanctuary and Redline, both in 1997, and they worked together again on The Crow television series. You know, if you told me that as of tomorrow, all films were going to be directed by Tibor Takacs, star Mark Dacascos and Rutger Hauer (and hot chicks in short skirts), and involve fighting giant snakes and/or spiders, my only real regret would be that there would then be no more Uwe Boll films.
Come to think of it, why hasn’t Mark Dacascos been in an Uwe Boll film yet?
Takacs also wrote the screenplay for Redline, along with a guy named Brian Irving who seems to be Takacs’ frequent partner in crime. They collaborated together on Rats, Sanctuary, and Nostradamus. Like I said, turn on the Sci-Fi Channel any Saturday, and you are pretty likely to see a film these guys made.
I suppose that this being a work of speculative fiction, one could search for meaning amid all the chaos and scenes of Rutger Hauer killing people. Beneath the sci-fi and action film veneer, this ends up being a political thriller as well, possibly even a spy film. But to read too much meaning into anything is to ignore the greater body of work this writer-director has created. His vision of the future plays like a version of modern-day Russia with a a bunch of Strange Days grafted on to get the film put in the science fiction section. There’s absolutely no reason the mysterious Special Prosecutor needs to resurrect a dead Rutger Hauer in order to sick him on the members of a Russian gang as part of some convoluted plot to assassinate the too-friendly and reform-minded president. It seems like his method of planning is to never let anything be done in one step if it can be done in ten. The guy might have even succeeded with his coup had he spent more time figuring out how to just shoot the president, and less time bringing Rutger Hauer back from the dead and hatching assorted schemes with Mark Dacascos, in an attempt to manipulate Dacascos into crossing his mob bosses, so that…oh, really. You know what? Very little of it makes a lick of sense, and if you try and dissect it any further than “Rutger Hauer looks at boobs and tries to kill Mark Dacascos,” you are probably going to give up. At least Takacs didn’t make the future some totally dystopian Blade Runner meets 1984 (this being before The Matrix) cliche.
In fact, I like the whole idea of scifi films set in Russia and Eastern Europe. The 80s and 90s were dominated by the William Gibson-esque assumption that the future would be dominated by Japan, and everything would be controlled by steely-eyed yakuza in black suits, with a tendency to still use samurai swords even though the rest of the world moved on to guns a couple centuries ago. While Japan still enjoys the reputation of happening fifty years in the future thanks in no small part to their love of flashing cell phones and disturbingly realistic robotic love dolls, it turns out that the future is probably going to play out in places like Russia, China, and oh, let’s say India even though they don’t like science fiction. Russia certainly lends itself to easy sci-fi. You hardly even have to dress the set. Now all we need is a movie where the dejected future samurai corporate hitmen of Japan have to fight for their livelihood against a bunch of future Russian mob corporate hitmen.
So, what have we said? None of it makes any sense, right? The pace is awkward. Not exactly slow, because Rutger Hauer is always killing people or getting it on, or Mark Dacascos is always getting in or out of the hot tub, but there’s no real energy to most of the action. It’s a Canadian co-production, and Canadian films often have a weird feel tot he pace. But then, Canadian films are rarely this mean and scummy, so that compensates somewhat for the meandering clip. Much of the film feels like running in place, albeit fairly amusing running in place, because Rutger Hauer is walking around blowing the hell out of anything and everyone with almost no consequences at all (eventually, they put a bounty out on him, which delights the bloodthirsty hobo vigilantes to no end) and not the slightest concern. As far as we can tell, he was a smuggler, but not a killer, so for him to suddenly become a nonchalant killing machine who will just haul off and blow away anyone with even the most tenuous appearance of guilt or malice is…well, I guess if you were a dead guy walking around Russia looking to avenge your own murder, maybe that’s the sort of thing that makes you put less value on life. Or maybe Tibor Tikacs just didn’t give a shit and figured that watching Rutger Hauer shoot like a thousand guys is more fun than watching Rutger Hauer shoot one guy then agonize about the moral implications of his actions afterward.
All that negative stuff aired, it’s probably no surprise that I actually kind of like Redline. It’s a modestly entertaining, largely tasteless exercise in gratuitous sex, sleaze, and violence, and that’s usually all it takes to make me happy. Throw in some engaging actors, lots of skimpy outfits, big guns, a ludicrous plot, insane amounts of murder that never seem to attract the attention of the police, and Rutger Hauer getting the sleeper hold put on him by a naked bodybuilder chick, and you have the recipe for a decent if idiotic trip to the near future.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: Canada and The Netherlands | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Mark Dacascos, Yvonne Scio, Patrick Dreikauss, Randall William Cook, Michael Mehlmann, Ildiko Szucs, Istvan Kanizsay, John Thompson, Gabor Peter Vincze, Scott Athea, Attila Arpa | Writer: Tibor Takacs and Brian Irving | Director: Tibor Takacs | Cinematographer: Zoltan David | Music: Guy Zerafa | Producer: Brian Irving | Alternate Titles: Deathline, Armageddon, The Syndicate