Matching Escort (1982)

Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.

Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.

Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.

-Brandon Ledet

The 6th Day (2000)

Every year for my birthday, I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a gift to myself. Something about that Austrian galoot’s heyday as the live-action cartoon version of an American action star makes me warmly nostalgic in a way no other media can. This year, I took a risk by revisiting one of the lesser loved action flicks from the final days of Arnie’s golden era, just a few years before he switched from explosions to politics. The 6th Day held up much better than expected as a dumb-as-rocks nostalgia trip, though, with the camp value of its early-aughts futurism aging like fine wine over the past couple decades. More importantly, it was surprisingly solid Schwarzenegger Birthday programming (something I should remember for future celebrations). Not only does the film deliver two Arnies for the price of one, but it’s also set on his own character’s birthday for at least the first half of the film. My only regret is not timing my viewing where I could have blown out my birthday candles at the same time as my favorite muscled-up goofball.

In short, The 6th Day presents an alternate reality where Joel Schumacher directed Total Recall, and it’s just as delightfully stupid & gaudy as that sounds. In the near future—”sooner than you think”—a Totally American Dad (and helicopter pilot for an X-treme sports snowboarding company) has his life derailed when he is cloned against his will by an evil Bill Gates type and his scientist lackeys. Horrified to discover that he’s been replaced in his home (and marital bed) by his own clone, Schwarzenegger vows to take down the Evil Scientist Dweebs who ruined his life with the only tools he knows: punches, explosions, and one-liners. Beyond the chase scenes & mustache-twirling villainy that earns the film its vintage action movie credentials, The 6th Day is essentially just a collection of kitschy predictions of what the “future” is going to look like circa 2015. Some of these predictions are supposed to read as Super Cool to the macho set: the continued sports world dominance of the XFL, remote control helicopters you can pilot with video game joysticks, programmable slutty hologram girlfriends, etc. Most predictions are supposed to be terrifying & dystopian: the criminalization of tobacco use, creepy robot smart-dolls made for little girls and, most importantly, the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiments being extended to creating human life. And Schwarzenegger’s at the center of it all, just trying his best to be a good Husband & Dad like every red-blooded American should.

Admittedly, The 6th Day can’t compete with the very best of Schwarzenegger’s macho American caricatures, as seen in trash-action classics like Commando & The Running Man. Still, it’s charming to see him doing his thing so many years after he already spoofed himself for it in Last Action Hero. Playing off the film’s cloning theme, Arnie lands not one but two “Go screw yourself” one-liners, as well as the self-referential zinger “I might be back.” That is comedy, folks. There’s also something adorable about his character’s quest to return to a life of chomping cigars and making love with his wife, which is positioned as being in direct opposition to The Modern World. The details surrounding this macho, all-American throwback kitsch can be surprisingly grotesque, as the cloning gimmick at the center of the movie essentially makes human bodies disposable and, thus, fair game to dismantle. No amount of severed thumbs, limbs, or intestines can fully pave over the childlike naivete at the film’s core, though, and the violence ends up coming across as more live-action Looney Tunes than anything genuinely severe. The 6th Day is a little overlong and very much overwhelmingly macho, but it’s mostly a hoot. It will likely never enjoy the same Cult Classic reputation as other brainless action spectacles from Schwarzenegger’s prime, but I find it to be one of those classics’ better late-career clones. I can’t wait to blow out my birthday candles with Unkie Arnie on my next revisit.

-Brandon Ledet

Bacurau (2020)

One of the major benefits of genre filmmaking is that you can repeat & mutate stories audiences have seen hundreds of times before and still make them freshly exciting. In its most basic terms, the Brazilian whatsit Bacurau is a delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game”, a short story that has been reshaped into countless genre films as wide ranging in tone & purpose as Hard Target, The Hunt, The Pest, and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. Bacurau is so deliberately disorienting in its own psychedelic mutation of “The Most Dangerous Game”, however, that it’s not until well into its runtime that you even recognize that’s what it’s going for, despite the story’s cultural familiarity. It’s a film that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit its central scenario is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Yet, it incorporates trashier genre filmmaking signifiers like screen-wipe transitions, extreme split-diopter framing, 1950s UFOs, and the casting of Udo Kier as its central villain so as not to lose its traditional action movie cred while pursuing its more artsy-fartsy ambitions. This is a film that uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

The title Bacurau refers to a fictional small town in near-future Brazil, “a few years from now.” The town begins the film in mourning, having lost its community leader & matriarch to old age. Then, the town descends into full on crisis mode as it is mysteriously erased from all online maps of Brazil and is surveilled by retro UFO-shaped drones. The film delays allowing its audience any solid footing for as long as it can, deliberately bewildering us in the first act to mimic the mental state of the Bacurau citizenry. Once the hunting-humans-for-sport aspect of its plot emerges from the confusion, however, the crisis only becomes exponentially more intriguing & thrilling. Like all great genre films, Bacuaru deploys its familiar plot template to address something intimately specific & fresh in metaphor that its premise has not been applied to before (not to my knowledge, anyway). This small Brazilian community is literally hunted from all sides by outside capitalists who see them as subhuman: gun-crazy American tourists, wealthy São Paulino elitists from the opposite end of the country, and even their own local government. It’s a literalized exaggeration of the kinds of exploitation that strains nearly all low-income POC communities no matter how remote, which only makes the exaggerated ultraviolence of the town’s bloody revenge on their oppressors all the more satisfying once it inevitably arrives.

If there’s any clear message being communicated in Bacurau, it’s to be found in the film’s emphasis on community & solidarity. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to get your footing in the first act is that the film has no clear protagonist. Each member of the community is allowed their own command of the film’s POV in time, and it’s the way they equally value each other’s contributions to the town’s daily survival (from doctor to musician to sex worker) that eventually sees them through what looks like an impossible crisis. Meanwhile, the racist, capitalist scum who seek to destroy the people of Bacurau for frivolous entertainment end up destroying each other in the process instead, as their selfishness & individualism makes them too weak to function. There’s a lot to praise in the way the film reshapes its “Most Dangerous Game” inspiration source to make it freshly exciting in both its aesthetics & politics. If nothing else, it has a low-key hallucinatory effect in its matter-of-fact handling of surreal circumstances that I can only compare to other recent South American films of a similar political bent: Monos, Zama, Icaros, Good Manners, Electric Swan, etc. It’s the focus on communal solidarity and de-emphasis of the individual that really distinguishes the film as something freshly exciting for me, though, especially considering the action genre’s long history of Lone Muscle Man hero worship.

Bacurau traffics in such familiar tones & thematic territories that it takes a while to fully register just how overwhelmingly odd it is in its distinguishing details. It’s clearly one of the stranger new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I don’t know that I fully realized that until I was fully immersed in its climactic bloodbath. This is genre cinema alchemy, the kind of bizarro outlier that reminds us why repeating these stories in new, evolving contexts is a worthwhile practice in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy World (2020)

I’ve finally had my first Wakaliwood experience, thanks to the pandemic-inspired We Are One: A Global Film Festival charity event that ran for free on YouTube earlier this month. The D.I.Y. African movie studio has been operated out of the home of self-taught filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana (self-credited as Nabwana IGG) for a full decade now. It seems to be little more than a few laptops & cameras in the hands of amateur action-movie buffs in Kampala, Uganda, but its acclaim in Midnight Movie circles has been emphatically spreading for years now. Where most outsider-art cult movies of recent years have earned their notoriety through so-bad-it’s-good mockery from tragically insincere Film Bros (think Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or whoever’s responsible for the Birdemic Cinematic Universe), Wakaliwood pictures sidestep that pitfall entirely by having fun with the audience, allowing little room for anyone to mock them from a distance. There’s no way these micro-budget action thrillers could compete with the over-the-top spectacles of Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious, at least not in terms of resources or scale. Instead, they aim for a deliberate action-comedy bent, verbally acknowledging their quality as a bootleg version of Hollywood action franchises and inviting the audience to laugh along with them instead of mocking them from afar. When Tommy Wiseau was let in on The Joke, his schtick was ruined, and he hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since The Room. By contrast, Wakaliwood was already having fun with their outsider-art oddities before a worldwide audience arrived to the party, so all anyone could do was join in the fun. I’m grateful that We Are One finally sent along my invite (courtesy of the Midnight Madness programmers at TIFF).

A lot of Wakaliwood’s unique it’s-all-a-party vibe is due to its in-house hype-man narrator, Emmie. Emmie is billed as the films’ VJ (“Video Joker”), a master of ceremonies who excitedly talks over the movies to explain their onscreen action (as if he were Silent Era title cards) and to keep the audience’s blood pumping. It’s as if the films had built in their own MST3k commentary team, except will all the show’s above-it-all Gen-X snark replaced with unembarrassed movie-nerd joy. Sometimes, the VJ interjects to establish characters’ motivations or to remind the audience who’s fighting on which side. More often, he’s just shouting energizing catchphrases like an exercise class instructor, keeping our heartrate up with gloriously redundant outbursts of “Supa!”, “Commando!”, and “Movie, movie, movie!” Nabwana IGG’s hyperactive editing style is similarly geared towards keeping the mood light & the audience constantly wired, cutting out all breathing room between cuts so all that’s onscreen is action & jokes alternating in dizzingly rapid succession. Curiously, the characters themselves seem to be aware of this constant need to push onto the next action sequence, as if they are aware they’re in a movie. When a husband is about to find his wife in bed with another man or an evil gang is about to clash with the film’s heroes, there’s usually an excited observer on hand to comment about how good of a movie we’re about to see, sometimes doing the VJ’s job for him before he gets to weigh in. It all plays into the communal, regional filmmaking vibe Nabwana IGG establishes with his hyperlocal Ugandan crew and his exponentially international audience at home. Everyone’s on the same footing, whether narrator, actor, or outside observer; we’re all invited to party.

In Crazy World, a Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & the children’s enraged parents. In the 80s & 90s action movies Nabwana IGG is emulating (Commando, Cobra, Hard Target, etc.), the crooked network of child abductors would normally be taken down by a lone ex-military musclehead who is mysteriously unable to be struck by the bullets fired by dozens of enemies. Nabwana IGG opens up the playing field to allow as many of his local community actors to have their heroic Schwarzenegger moment as possible: returning characters from past Wakaliwood classics, a new crop of ”Kung Fu”-trained neighborhood children called The Waka Starz, and a random assortment of revenge-seeking parental figures who just want their kids back. The most notable of which is a once-reputable local man who becomes communally ignored as a homeless lunatic once his son is abducted by the evil gang. As the Video Joker solemnly explains, “He lost his child, then he lost his mind.” The title of the film is borrowed from the homeless man’s self-built shanty town, a reconstructed pile of trash from where he observes the comings & goings of the wicked kidnapping gang until he finds the right time to strike, using societal dismissal of mentally ill vagrants to hide in plain sight. None of this matters too much once the gang is actively overthrown by the community they terrorize, though, as he’s only one hero of many. It seems Nabwana IGG & his VJ mouthpiece especially want the Waka Starz to steal some of the homeless vigilante’s spotlight, repeatedly asserting that Crazy World is “The Greatest Kidz Movie Eva” despite the fact that it’s drenched in gunfire & bloodshed. The kids are adorably tough in their own moments of collective heroism, though, which really accentuates the movie’s charms as a document of hyperlocal communal filmmaking.

I can’t speak to how Crazy World compares to other films in the Wakaliwood canon, but it worked exceedingly well as an introduction to Nabwana IGG’s output for me. That often came across as a deliberate intention of the piece, as the movie periodically stops dead to promote the trailers for past & future Wakaliwood productions the audience should get hyped for. It worked too, as I was jotting down titles like Bad Black & Who Killed Captain Alex? as necessary homework assignments I needed to catch up with. Unfortunately, a documentary titled Once Upon a Time in Uganda was supposed to premiere at this year’s SXSW fest to help further spread the good word of Wakaliwood’s output but was preempted by our current COVID-19 pandemic. In what had to be my favorite aspect of Crazy World’s presentation on the We Are One platform, Nabwana IGG directly acknowledges that bizarre circumstance, interrupting the film’s action to deploy “anti-piracy enforcers” to online bootleggers’ homes across the globe via CG helicopters to apprehend them for stealing his movie. There is no shyness around self-promotion or copyright protection here. Characters will directly ask bootleggers onscreen “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?” as a plea for compassion (as well as a for-its-own-sake comedic gag). It is damn hard to make a movie, something that makes Nabwana IGG’s growing media empire look even more enticing as a newcomer who’s far behind the curve. He has so many titles under his name, yet so few resources behind their production or distribution. In that way, he’s a true D.I.Y. filmmaking success story, and I’m incredibly excited to have finally stumbled into his crazy world.

-Brandon Ledet

Birds of Prey (2020)

It took me over a thousand rambling words to defend the much-reviled DC supervillain team-up Suicide Squad as Passably Okay back when it was first released in 2016. It was an ugly mess of a film when considered in its comic-book worldbuilding context, but as an outsider to that end of nerdom I found it amusing as a Hot Topic-costumed shoot-em-up action flick. Where I was really out of step with the critical consensus on that film was believing that it was saved, not ruined, by its studio tinkering. Suicide Squad was edited to Hell and back, removing as much of meathead director David Ayer’s personal vision and footage of Jared Leto’s meth clinic Joker as the studio could manage with while still walking away with a “coherent” picture. The genius of this post-production tinkering is that it highlighted the two sole items of interest in Suicide Squad’s arsenal: its mall-goth flavored gun violence and Margot Robbie’s electric performance as the Joker’s anarchic moll, Harley Quinn (mostly through Robbie’s already-established chemistry with Will Smith, sans Leto). Brilliantly, Suicide Squad’s spinoff sequel Birds of Prey (produced by Robbie herself) has further isolated & extrapolated those two morsels of entertainment value to the point where my moderate enjoyment of the previous picture is now obsolete. In fact, most superhero media of the past couple decades (or at least since Joel Schumacher transformed Batman into a gay cartoon) now feels obsolete in a post-Birds of Prey world. This is exactly what I’m looking for in modern superhero pictures but rarely, if ever, receive.

Birds of Prey is just as narratively messy as Suicide Squad, but this time it’s an intentional result of its protagonist’s loopy POV rather than a toxic-waste byproduct of studio interference. Its “story” mimics a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled timeline assemblage, but only because its narrator is too far detached from reality to relay a linear tale. As a result, nothing about its diamond heist MacGuffin plot or running-from-the-law dramatic tension registers as especially important. This is more of a bubblegum pop breakup song than it is a feature film, catching up with the violent-crime clownstress Harley Quinn in the immediate hours after being dumped by her abusive, manipulative boyfriend The Joker. Devastated but liberated, Harley lashes out at the world at large in grand displays of heartbreak: getting blackout drunk at the local gangster bar; exploding the chemical refinery where she used to loiter with her boo; forming a titular girl gang with fellow violent eccentrics; and shotgunning entre cans of Cheese Wiz directly into her mouth. Those grand displays of heartache announce to the local crime world that she’s no longer under the Joker’s “protection,” making it open season for any and all dirtbag men she’s wronged over the years to seek revenge for past grievances. As her road to self-fulfilling singledom and her clashes with every scummy bro in Gotham pile up, the movie ultimately becomes a thin excuse to watch Margot Robbie kick the shit out of nameless men, model sparkly costumes, and mug directly at the camera. What I’m saying is it’s a delight.

The slapstick action-comedy of this grim, R-rated novelty is as hyperviolent as it is hyperfemme. Harley Quinn smashes men’s faces & kneecaps with wild abandon, but she’s most likely to do so with a canon-fired glitter bomb or a bejeweled baseball bat. She commands the same anarchic, glammed-up energy as Bugs Bunny in drag, and the entire movie around her has no choice but to warp itself around that Looney sensibility. I struggle to explain exactly why that “Ain’t I a stinker?“ pranksterism works for me here when I found it brutally unfunny in the Deadpool movies, except maybe in that the wardrobe is more exciting and Robbie, unlike Ryan Reynolds, can actually land a joke. It might just be that it’s more of a refreshing novelty to watch women behave badly than men, as they so rarely get the chance. When asked why she’s such a self-absorbed, explosively violent monster in the film’s third act, Harley muses, “I guess I’m just not a good person.” It’s likely that freedom to misbehave so flagrantly is what drew Robbie back in to revive the role despite the avalanche of negative Suicide Squad critiques (this time with a female creative team – director Cathy Yan & writer Christina Hodson). Whatever the case, the devious humor she finds in this mayhem absolutely lights up the screen, and the only times the movie momentarily stumbles are in the occasional scenes where anyone who’s not Harley highjacks the POV. I can apparently watch her tear through sequin outfits & broken bones for hours without flagging in enthusiasm. Every minute she’s onscreen is pure, chaotic joy.

More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.

-Brandon Ledet

War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Gemini Man (2019)

After earning major critical accolades as the director of cinematic triumphs like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, one-time filmmaker Ang Lee is now considering a secondary career as an absolute madman. Ever since Life of Pi, Lee has been sinking further & further into the abyss of tech obsession in his maniacal, one-sided pursuit of Perfection in craft – periodically emerging from his haunted laboratory with feature “films” no one wants nor cares for: first Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk in 2016 and now 2019’s Gemini Man. Specifically, Lee has become fixated on the merits of ultra-motion-smoothing High Frame Rate tech usually reserved for video games and sports broadcasts. Scoffing at the cowardly 48fps & 60fps rates that make the Hobbit movies and your parents’ factory-setting TVs look like absolute dogshit, Lee has bravely shouted “Double it!” in the face of God & good taste. Not a single commercial movie theater in America is currently equipped to screen Gemini Man in its intended, diabolical format: 3D, 4k, 120fps. Fourteen theaters in the country did secure a version of the film in that roided-out motion-smoothing 120fps rate, though, settling for a wimpy 2k 3D scan so their equipment could handle the projection. One of them happened to be AMC Elmwood just outside New Orleans, which is one of my weekly movie-watching spots.

Gemini Man’s light sci-fi plot about a retired super-soldier who must defend his decades-younger clone—both played by Will Smith—is about as generic of an action blockbuster premise that you’ll find outside a 1990s Bruckheimer flick. It’s probably for the best that this killer clones story template is something we’ve already seen repeated too many times before, though, since there isn’t a single second of this monstrous HFR experiment when you aren’t thinking about how absolutely fucking bizarre everything looks, so there’s no real room to care about the story. Will Smith acts his heart out in his dual roles, selling both the unembarrassed cheese of his older self’s Dad Jokes and the deep pain of the younger clone’s identity crisis with full commitment as the two super-soldiers battle it out in a “hyper real” screen space. There’s nothing Smith can to distract from the visual spectacle of the film’s format, though, since that’s where all of Lee’s efforts were poured. Applying all this HFR and mo-cap clone tech to such a pedestrian nothing of a story is a bold, deliberate choice on Lee’s part; it makes the movie about the technology as if it were a convention-floor demo reel. There’s nothing Smith can do with the so-so dialogue that will overpower the spectacle of him drinking from a crisply detailed soda can or swatting a distinctly visible fly with his baseball cap. There’s no semblance of depth in the film’s screenplay, but there’s miles-long depth of field in Lee’s camera; the distance between those two effects continually calls attention to itself to the point where there’s room for nothing else.

Overall, I’m more tickled with Ang Lee’s madman passion for tech no one else cares for than I am pleased with the results. It’s confounding to me that the very week this film was released there was a Twitter hive-mind discussion about the difference between cinema and theme parks—sparked by Martin Scorsese flippantly dismissing the artistic merits of the MCU—and somehow this wasn’t the movie being discussed. Usually, in action movies there’s a level of forget-your-troubles escapism in the stunts & explosions on display, but those payoffs here look more akin to attending a live practical effects demonstration at a Universal Studios amusement park than they do cinema. Every spark, flame, bullet, and speck of shrapnel on the screen was distinctly visible and textured in detail, but the HFR motion-smoothing often cheapened the look of the action so that it resembled a behind-the-scenes featurette instead of the Feature Presentation. The most delight I found in the results of Lee’s experiment were the kind of gimmick demonstrations that were popular the first time 3D tech was imported into movie theaters: gun barrels, motorcycles, explosions, and—I kid you not—kernels of popcorn protruding past the 2D plane to “leap” off the screen. Gemini Man might have worked better as a Movie if it were nonstop stunts & chases in that way, with an assortment of 3D objects constantly flying at the screen in unrelenting Will-Smith-on-Will-Smith mayhem, but making a better movie was never Ang Lee’s goal. It was just as important to the madman that he exhibit what the HFR tech can do in dramatic, low-key moments of (consistently non-consequential) dialogue – the kind of attraction you’d find at a techie convention, or inside a carnival tent.

There are flashes of interesting images that result from Gemini Man’s formal experiment, most notably in the super-soldier’s underwater nightmares and, appropriately, the 1st-person-shooter video game action sequences. Mostly, though, this feels like an accomplished director who got bored with making movies reaching for an unattainable goal with equipment & an audience that aren’t quite there yet. At one point, a character describing a failed military mission explains it perfectly, saying “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic.” You have to appreciate the hubris that leads to that kind of spectacle, even when the results are this disastrous. I do believe that some near-future nature documentary or surreal animation experiment will make better use of this tech, and that success will be largely due to Ang Lee’s willingness to fail in such a spectacular fashion. He’s wearing himself out to the point of madness trying to normalize something no one else seems to want. The weird thing is that it might already be working, however subtly. My opening-night audience didn’t seem to notice anything peculiar about the film’s presentation, to the point where I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t y’all see how fucking weird this all is???” Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Either way, they didn’t seem to care – which is the exact indifference that is snapping Ang Lee’s brain in half, like so many duplicated Will Smiths.

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Trigger (1996)

It’s tempting to root for the mid-90s Dolph Lundgren action cheapie Silent Trigger as a lost gem. Directed by Australian genre nerd Russell Mulcahy (the mastermind behind the absurd action-fantasy series Highlander), Silent Trigger is at the very least crafted with a distinct sensibility. Couched in an introspective flashback structure and frequently interrupted by time-elapsed nature footage set to Enya-style New Age 90s jams, it’s something of a novelty within its action cinema context, which tends to favor explosions & guitar riffs over those softer touches. It also initially pairs its muscly macho star, Lundgren, with a female partner equal to his skill level (Gina Bellman) instead of relegating women to mere damsel-in-distress roles, which is even more of a novelty in its specific era of action cinema. Unfortunately, I can’t heap too much praise on Silent Trigger for those deviations from the 90s action movie template, however, since it eventually shits the bed in its male-female duo dynamic by relying on the laziest, least appealing go-to for easy genre film tension around: the threat of rape.

On its face, this is one of the many, many Die Hard knockoffs that cropped up throughout the 90s. It’s initially difficult to recognize it as such, though, since the film’s structure is so unusual for the genre. Lundgren & Bellman co-star as a pair of trained mercenary assassins who are tasked to set up for a long-distance kill at the top of an unfinished skyscraper. There’s more time piddled away on waiting for the kill than there is on the fight to reach that pinnacle, emphasizing the quiet hangout energy of a traditional stakeout. In this pre-assassination wait time, the killer pair reflect back on a botched mission where they previously met years earlier, suggesting a conspiracy among their employers in hiring them for the skyscraper job. The introspective quiet of piecing this puzzle together in flashbacks is unusual for the action genre, especially since it’s accentuated with the surreal time-elapse Nature imagery Mulcahy also experimented with in the first two Highlander movies. Almost as if afraid that indulgence would test the audience’s patience, however, the film stirs up an in-the-moment threat to buy time until the conspiracy plot reaches its boiling point. That’s not a fatal mistake in itself, but the particular villain it opts for is a violent rapist creep, a choice that entirely sours the mood of a film otherwise notable for its quiet sensitivity.

The rapist in question is a slimy security guard who’s tasked with monitoring the tower while it’s under construction. As soon as he spots the female assassin in his building, he immediate starts salivating at the prospect of assaulting her. Once she lies about being a computer programmer contracted for building maintenance and pulls a gun on him to neutralize his threat, he only doubles down on his singular, repugnant mission. That escalation of the guard’s rapist fervor could be read as thematic commentary on the dangerous fragility of the male ego, since he absolutely cannot handle being bested by a woman. It’s not nearly thoughtful enough to justify the endless, unrelenting presence of this vile character, however, whose threats to “fuck” our female lead “to death” makes Silent Trigger a thoroughly miserable watch, especially since he has no direct influence on the film’s overall plot. Besides providing an in-the-moment conflict while the actual plot quietly hums in the background, all he accomplishes is reducing the female star of the film to a whimpering damsel to be rescued by Lundgren. In other words, he actively ruins one of the few aspects of Silent Trigger that makes it special within its genre. The film has no time to recover from that fall from grace because he will not go away, no matter how loudly you shout “Fuck you!” at the screen.

With the security guard rapist plot removed, Silent Trigger might satisfy as a decent-enough action cinema oddity. As quietly introspective as the film can feel, it’s often punctuated by bizarre genre spectacle touches like a slow-motion helicopter crash that Lundgren simply leaps out of the way of, an order to assassinate a politician while she’s holding a baby, and a hallucinatory attack of CGI spiders that appear virtually out of nowhere. The dialogue dabbles in almost enough action genre mumbo jumbo like “Target approaching kill zone,” & “The war ended, but the hunt didn’t” to convince you that this is a totally normal, run-of-the-mill 90s action cheapie. Still, Mulcahy’s New Age nature footage and quiet stakeout introspection clearly distinguish it as more of an outlier than a business-as-usual rubber stamp. It’s a total shame, then, that so much energy & screentime is squandered on a mood-ruining sexual assault subplot that suggests a total lack of imagination & self-awareness. It’s a frustrating, prolonged act of self-sabotage that tanks the entire enterprise.

-Brandon Ledet

Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet