In the mind of any reasonable viewer, “Expect No Mercy” should inspire dread. Starring Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi, two of the least charismatic, least able actors to ever headline multiple movies, and it’s based around the concept of virtual reality so you know it’s going to be packed with 90s CGI effects. But, and I was as surprised as you, it’s very enjoyable! Join me, let’s talk trashy martial arts movies and have some fun.
There’s a surprisingly fun opening scene when a group of black-clad guys wipe out the home of what looks like a drug dealer. Certainly some bad guys, so it’s quite surprising later on when we discover that these “heroes” are actually the villains. Okay, moderately surprising. One of the villains, watching a guy get into his sports car with a beautiful woman, admiringly notes “that is one smooth dude”, a line I wish I could use without irony in 2016. How else will people know they’re smooth dudes? But most credit must go to the leader of the assassination squad, Damian, played by Anthony DeLongis. He’s one of the great “That Guy” actors, and I know him best from two first-rate performances as different characters on “Highlander: The Series” (but he’s been in everything) – he shows here that he deserved a much better career, playing the evil villain part with just the right amount of over-the-top-ness.
Anyway, the plot, such as it is, revolves around Federal agent Justin Vanier (Blanks), who’s sent undercover at the Virtual Arts Academy, an extraordinarily well-funded school for teaching people martial arts using virtual reality headsets. Apparently, you can compress decades of fight training into just two years with their technology! There’s a guy on the inside – Eric (Merhi), one of the instructors; and Eric sort of has a thing going with one of the other instructors, Vicki (Laurie Holden, aka Andrea from “The Walking Dead”). Remember this fact. She’s an instructor, at a martial arts academy.
The VR machine goes up to a maximum of level 5, where the virtual opponents do double the normal damage, and of course Justin defeats level 5 on his first try because this movie is in a hurry to get to the good stuff. Thanks to Eric’s tech skills, they discover all about the secret assassinations the school has been carrying out, and (weirdly quickly, when you think about it) the head of the school, Warbeck (Wolf Larson) discovers their discovery. So it’s them, first trying to escape from Warbeck, then trying to stop the next assassination his people are about to carry out.
Simple, and very effective. From our lofty future vantage point, the graphics will give you many laughs in the first half – the “virtual lecture” given by Eric and Vicki, which could very easily have just been given in a normal classroom, is a particular highlight. And there’s even some relatively clever prediction of the future, as Warbeck loudly exclaims that the future is information, and if he controls that, he controls the world. He should have just set up a search engine and a social media site, he needn’t have worried about the crime stuff.
Towards the end, the VR rules are thrown out of the window because…er…well, I’m sure it’s important. The villain has a very long monologue about how the Government is bad, and Billy Blanks gets to say the second-greatest line immediately after killing someone with a steam-pipe ever (I’ll leave you to discover what that line is).
It’s just action, action, action. Director Zale Dalen had lots of TV credits to his name and not many movies, but knew the strengths of his stars and steered into them (hint: it’s not acting). As well as fighting all the wacky bad guys in VR, there’s wave after wave of trainee assassins to contend with, and both Blanks and Merhi spend over half their time on screen kicking ass. You do begin to wonder why no-one in this enormous base has a gun, but that’s small potatoes. Writer J Stephen Maunder is a Merhi regular, and is sure to give his employer (Merhi produced this) plenty of good stuff to do.
A few casting bits of trivia make this movie a little more explicable. Oliver Gruner was supposed to be in the Billy Blanks role, but pulled out right before filming started, leaving Blanks the last minute substitute (to be fair, he could have had ten years to prepare, it wouldn’t have made him a better actor). And the Warbeck role was going to be Gary Daniels, a superb martial artist and decent actor; but the distributors wanted an American in the role I guess, so Wolf Larson got it. He’s cool as hell, by the way, and has a great time overacting his part to the max.
If you have any love in your heart for B-movies, then you’ll love this. It’s simple, direct, cheesy, filled with one-liners delivered terribly by Billy Blanks, lots of fun, lots of action, and races along. You won’t regret it.
But there’s one thing which grates really badly, and that’s Merhi’s treatment of women. After watching the “Tiger Claws” series of movies, where he does all the work and legit world champion martial artist Cynthia Rothrock is mostly just along for the ride, this is pretty obvious, but it’s so painfully apparent here that it needs commenting on. When our heroes escape and go to stop the assassination, the first thing Eric says to Vicki is “stay here”, leaving her crouched with a worried expression on her face while the men do all the fighting. Yes, the same woman who’s an instructor at a martial arts academy! Then, she gets kidnapped and taken back to the base, where she’s hung off the side of a building by a rope; if you watch the movie, you can see the surface she’s up against is rough, with lots of areas to get purchase. What I’m saying is, a trained martial artist should be able to climb up the side of the building easily (heck, I’d give it a go, and I’m fat and middle-aged), but because Merhi cannot conceive of women being able to do anything, leaves her there to be rescued, roughly equivalent to silent movies where the damsel in distress was tied to train tracks.
So, appalling sexism aside…
Rating: thumbs up
PS – Looking up J Stephen Maunder, I noticed a movie which is due out this year, apparently, called “Beyond The Game”. Look at the cast list, like a B-movie “Expendables” – Armand Assante; Chamillionaire; Mark Dacascos; Olivier Gruner; Kelly Hu; Matthias Hues; Martin Kove; Lorenzo Lamas; Jason Scott Lee; Bai Ling; Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister; Kristanna Loken; Michael Madsen; Costas Mandylor; Eric Roberts; Cynthia Rothrock; Dan Severn; Kevin Sorbo; Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa; Oleg Taktarov; Brian Thompson; Tony Todd; Danny Trejo; Casper Van Dien; Michael Jai White; Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson; and Billy Zane. What a list! The trailer is available online and is every bit as amazing as you’d expect, but let’s say you’re a movie reviewer wanting to help promote it?
The company’s website is defunct, their Facebook page hasn’t been used in 3 years, they’ve got almost the same name as a Canadian documentary group, which is confusing, and none of the people involved in the movie appear to use social media. It’s the same company that made “Blizhniy Boy” in 2008, which is as yet unreleased in English (I think there’s a Russian version somewhere, even though it’s got an English-speaking cast), and has the weird feeling of being a money-laundering operation or other complicated scam. Why make 3 movies, promote them and never release them?