Pass Thru (2016)

Neil Breen is back! Well, he’s been back for a while, but for some reason I kept putting off reviewing his fourth movie, following on from “Double Down”, “I Am Here….Now” and “Fateful Findings”. I actually thought, when looking it up online, that IMDB had got it wrong and had just used an old description. Here’s the summary of “I Am Here….Now”:

Disappointed by its creation, the almighty being that created Man arrives on Earth in a human form and interacts with various troubled, wicked and sinful people on his journey to Vegas.

And here’s the summary for “Pass Thru”:

A.I. , Artificial Intelligence from the distant future visits Earth to eliminate all humans who have been harmful to all humans worldwide.

He’s got a bee in his bonnet about something, that’s for sure. I hope you, dear reader, are already a fan of this completely unique filmmaker; but if not, please feel free to read my previous reviews of his work, or check out the YourMovieSucks and RedLetterMedia videos about him. And then let’s journey through the Breeniverse together.

Actually, before we start, this is the first Breen movie to use crowdfunding. Here’s a video from the campaign (which I missed, as it had expired before I discovered his work, I think).

Check out how many times he calls it a “legitimate feature film” and emphasises it isn’t a “midnight movie”. So when you watch it and discover he’s actually devolved as a filmmaker, it’s a little more surprising.

Okay, the plot. There are several strands to it, which…well, to say they come together is a bit of an overstatement, but they all interact with Breen towards the end. Sort of. I mean, they definitely don’t interact with each other. Anyway, we have a group of refugees, fleeing a mysterious unnamed country towards freedom and a better life; they’re split into genders by the people helping them across the border and imprisoned in dingy rooms. You might wonder why I didn’t say Mexicans, going to the USA, and that’s because the refugees are a multi-ethnic bunch, with most of them being caucasian, and the country they’re fleeing to is never named. Oh, Breen!

We also have three teenagers who are super interested in astronomy, and inspired by their crazy professor, who spends almost the entire movie in bed hooked up to a breathing apparatus, are looking for some mysterious event in the sky. This appears to be a red dot which makes several largely random appearances, or perhaps it’s a mysterious shadow which occasionally drifts over proceedings, or perhaps it’s both. Who knows?

There’s also the two women, a Mediterranean-looking lady (Amanda, played by Kathy Corpus) and her black niece (whose character was unnamed and uncredited, but she’s played by Chaize Macklin). They’re escaping the older woman’s abusive husband, and run into the same patch of desert scrubland as the refugees, but never meet them, although they do meet a mysterious filthy stranger, played by your friend and mine, Neil Breen.

He’s a junkie, living in a beyond-dilapidated teardrop-shaped trailer in the desert, and performs some service for the refugee handlers, for which he’s paid in heroin (although the service is, obviously as this is a Breen movie, never specified). One day, he…passes out? Dies? In the dirt next to his trailer after injecting, and the red light moves over him and makes a duplicate version of him stand up!

The duplicate is the AI we mentioned at the beginning, a presence that’s beamed itself back from the far future and has, for some reason, picked a filthy junkie as the human it wants to take the appearance of. One would think, if you’re into saving the world from itself, you’d get on with it right away, but he spends most of the first two-thirds of the movie sat in his trailer with the two women, or wandering round the desert, or sat on a rock next to a tiger. The tiger, which definitely isn’t a pasted-in effect, oh no, even the scenes where you can see snow in the background of the tiger shot when it’s supposed to be in the desert, is second-billed in the credits! Thanks, actors (most of whom he didn’t even bother to give names to)!

I’m getting ahead of myself, a little. The refugees are also used as drug mules, and there’s a scene where you know you’re definitely in Breen country, where two important things happen. First up, they get an oxy-acetylene torch to cut through the border fence, but rather than just lighting it and filming that for a few seconds, I have to assume no-one on set could figure out how to work it, or it had run out of fuel, so Breen put in a CGI flame effect on the end of the torch in post. What? But that’s not the best bit. The bad guys get the drugs, and begin to divide up the bags. “This one’s for the politicians, this one’s for the CEOs, this is for the stockbrokers, this bag’s for the bankers”…he’s got a point to make, and by god he’s going to make it as loudly and simply as possible.

Oh, and when he’s with the two women, he calls himself “Til”, which is spelled “Thgil”, a name he saw on a yogurt pot when Amanda asked him and he wasn’t prepared.

At about the 55 minute mark, Thgil suddenly gets bored of all this milling about in the desert with the pretty lady and her niece and decides to wipe out 300 million people. It’s a brave movie-maker who’ll use the slaughter of 4% of the world’s population as a thing he just casually drops in with half an hour left to go, but Breen is nothing if not brave. Of course, you know the people he wipes out – politicians, bankers, CEOs, evil men and women, reality show contestants, all that lot. The villains who have locked up the refugees are just beamed out of existence, with my favourite being the extremely shouty lady who runs operations. Her interaction with Thgil is perhaps the greatest scene in the entire history of motion pictures. It goes a little something like this:

“YOU ARE DONE!”

“NO, YOU ARE DONE!”

“DONE?”

“DONE!”

It takes a unique mind to write dialogue like that, and to perform it. The extremely shouty lady is, like everyone else, doing a passable impression of someone who’s never read out human words in their lives before now – special credit to the three teens, who are so bad…I keep using the word “worst” to describe people and things in this movie, but the word will cease to make sense if I just keep bombarding you with it. They really have to be seen to be believed, though; as do the TV news crew we keep cutting to as the world’s evil population keeps disappearing – they’re merely bottom 10 all time in the acting stakes. The only person who looks like they could appear in normal movies is Kathy Corpus, but…well, perhaps she’s wildly overacting to keep everyone else on the set company.

I understand what Breen is trying to do – you’d have to be a moose-headed moron to not get it. The entire last third of the movie is him hammering the point home, over and over again – he beams himself into the homes of several different big business / banker types, listens to their “haha we hate poor people” speeches, and then says “isn’t that wrong?” or variations thereof, for like ten minutes. Then, he appears in the TV news studio, kills all the newsreaders, and tells us what awful people we all are and how he’s perfect and we should all hate bankers or whatever. I mean, I agree, but unfortunately we aren’t all super-powerful beings from the future who can kill anyone we want without feeling the slightest twinge of remorse! It’s at this point he also criticises “political correctness”, which I’d be annoyed about if I thought he understood what it meant.

Like all my Breen reviews, I just want to recap every bonkers thing that happens, but I also want to leave stuff for you, dear reader, to discover and enjoy for yourselves. It’s so weird! You’ll have doens of questions of your own, like: Is there two of him? Did junkie real Breen survive?

If I had to guess, I’d say there are some scenes where he got all the actors to repeat the same lines, with the theory being he was going to pick the best use of that line to leave in the finished movie; but then he realised he was ten minutes short and just left all the different people saying the same thing in the finished product. In the time since “Fateful Findings”, he’s bought himself a drone with an HD camera on it, and there’s at least one other person in the crew with him to fly it round while he sits and looks pensive on a rock. So, he has a friend! That’s nice.

The editing is genuinely insane, though, and I wonder if he watched it after producing a rough cut. Take, for instance, the kids. They walk out into the desert, pass by a sluggish Breen on the ground (the real person?), then go back into their homes, then go and drag their professor off his deathbed, then go back to the desert, then just the three kids meet Breen (who they recognise instantly as an alien, not the bum they walked past half an hour before), then the kids and the professor go back home. Oh, and their phones are sometimes working and sometimes not. Why do it that way? Arrgh!

“It’s All The Dream Of A Dying Man”

This will be the title of my Neil Breen book. Three of Breen’s four movies could be argued to the revenge fantasies of a dying brain, as the Breen character is seen to “die” early in “Double Down”, “Fateful Findings” and “Pass Thru”. Is this what he’s intending? Or is he so thoroughly incompetent that I’m clutching at straws? It’s probably the second one.

Like I said before, this manages to be even worse than his last movie – although “Fateful Findings” is probably his masterpiece, so it’s to be expected. The plotlines that never come together, and have no real resolution; the acting that manages to be terrible, even compared to other bargain-basement Z-movies; the incredibly crude political message; the pitiful special effects; the ending which is the main character walking through an ocean of the corpses he caused, that we’re supposed to cheer on…it’s magnificent. And we fans get to appreciate the vest from “Double Down” making its third appearance in the Breeniverse.

I’ve had more fun watching Breen’s movies than almost any other “bad” filmmaker I can think of. He just keeps on trucking, and long may he continue, without ever trying to be in on his own joke.

Rating: thumbs up

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Witch Hunt (1994)

“Cast A Deadly Spell”, a made-for-HBO TV movie which starred HP Lovecraft as a private detective in a noir-ish 1940s LA where everyone uses magic, was a surprise thumbs-up from us; and it seems, from lots of other people, as they made a sequel to it a few years later.

Gone was director Martin Campbell (although writer Joseph Dougherty returned); he was replaced by Paul Schrader, who is more famous as a writer – he gave us “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ”. Gone is the entire cast of the first movie, most prominently Fred Ward as HP Lovecraft – he’s replaced by Dennis Hopper, who was in the stage of his career when he seemed pretty happy to coast in lesser projects. The other main draws are Eric Bogosian as Senator Larson Crocket, Penelope Ann Miller as Kim Hudson, a movie star and wife of a murdered studio executive, and Julian Sands as the mysterious Finn Macha, for some reason trotting out a genuinely bizarre Irish accent.

So. This is more something that uses the same basic building blocks to tell a completely different story than it is a sequel. Gone is the noir look of “Cast A Deadly Spell”, to be replaced by a much more TV-movie looking bright LA, kind of Sunset Boulevard crossed with the paintings of David Hockney (although nowhere near as interesting as that would actually look). It’s set in 1953, although it’s very vague on the details, having tons of props that people who pay more attention than me have dated to 1958 at the earliest.

They’ve made it a red scare movie, but replaced communism with magic. I’m not entirely sure this works? Okay, both are easy to learn, simple to understand and very beneficial to life, but communism was never as widespread and as beloved as magic is here. Senator Crocket is trying to ban magic, organises rallies and Senate hearings against it; at the same time, the murder of the producer is pinned on his wife, who was being fazed out of his movies in place of a younger starlet. Lovecraft investigates and the two come together (obviously, or this would be a very strange movie indeed).

There are some fun touches, such as near the beginning when a group of execs summon Shakespeare from the 16th century, who looks horrified, only to be glimpsed in a later scene having completely transformed into a typical LA scumbag; and the running gag of Lovecraft never being able to produce the right business card, carried over from the first movie. And, in a curious bit of continuity, a main character being a transvestite. But it just doesn’t work.

I’ve been trying to ponder a way to describe this. Imagine a “Friday the 13th” sequel that’s a political thriller, where Jason just sort of idly wanders through a few scenes not really doing anything. Having HP Lovecraft as a character in a movie where there’s no mention of his mythos, and where magic is an extremely flimsy metaphor, just seems pointless? It’s also really not helped by Hopper, who’s indifferent to proceedings, and director Schrader, likewise. I wonder what persuaded either of them this was worth their time? Did HBO throw a lot of money at them, or were they both working cheap that week?

I’m sorry to report that nothing really works. It’s not a good detective, horror, or comedy movie, and everyone gives off a strong vibe of wishing they were somewhere else. The world only needs one HP-Lovecraft-is-a-private-eye movie, and this isn’t it.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club: Cast A Deadly Spell (1991)

I love a good high-concept B-movie, or just one with a bizarre premise. If you’re going to make something in our world, why not try and have fun with it? Raw Force – “bunch of kung fu enthusiasts get shipwrecked on an island full of zombies”; Rome 2072: The New Gladiators – “a bike based murder TV show in the far future”; and Demon Cop – “about, er, a werewolf social worker”…among many many others. To that fine tradition we can add “Cast A Deadly Spell”.

Its premise? “HP Lovecraft is a detective in 1940s LA, and everyone uses magic apart from him. Literally everyone”.

Unlike some of the odder concept movies we’ve covered here at the ISCFC, the people behind this have got the chops to pull it off. There’s director Martin Campbell, who also directed all-time great TV show “Edge Of Darkness”, the Hollywood remake with Mel Gibson, and two James Bond movies (“GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale”). Writer Joseph Dougherty has been responsible for both “ThirtySomething” and “Pretty Little Liars”. And it stars Fred Ward (“Tremors”) as Lovecraft, David Warner (“Final Equinox”, “Beastmaster 3”) as the guy who hires him, Clancy Brown (“Highlander”) as Lovecraft’s former partner / villain, and a very early role for Julianne Moore as the femme fatale.

Much like its spiritual counterpart “The Maltese Falcon”, there’s a MacGuffin which drives the plot along – the Necronomicon! I mean, someone does want it to open up a portal to whichever dimension Yog Sothoth lives in and revive him, but it’s not important to the plot. They just want that damn book! Lovecraft, after some unspecified earlier incident, refuses to use magic, but everyone else does – every scene, there’ll be something floating along in the background, or a guy shaking a cocktail without using his hands. While it could have become annoying in the wrong hands, it’s just subtle enough to still be entertaining.

The Necronomicon is stolen from Amos Hackshaw (Warner), there’s a subplot with Lee Tergesen (“Wayne’s World”) playing two parts, one of whom is Lilly Sirwar, the love interest of the thief – he’s a convincing woman, it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that my wife went “is that a guy?” – and Lovecraft is trying to find it and keep it out of the hands of Harry Bordon (Brown).

They really make an effort to make the world they’re in feel normal and lived in, along with recreating the classic film noir flavour. Unlike films noir, there’s substantial roles for people of colour though, which is great, such as HP’s landlord / dance teacher Hipolyte Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker). There’s also a huge zombie familiar, who I thought might have been pro wrestler Viscera but was actually a fella by the name of Jaime Cardriche, and Bordon makes an off-hand remark about buying them in packs of six from Haiti.

Those of you with long memories may remember our coverage of movies based on HP Lovecraft stories, or in one case “inspired by the stories of” (which meant a few character names and not much more). This would go right to the top of the list of those movies, and I think it counts as much as “Cthulhu Mansion” ever did, as his mythos is a prominent part of the plot (summoning Yog-Sothoth, etc.) I just asked my friends back in the UK about “Cast A Deadly Spell” and they all acted amazed I’d never heard of it, considering how much they’d enjoyed it. Heck, there’s even a sequel of sorts! Same writer, diferent director (Hollywood legend Paul Schrader!) and different star (playing Lovecraft is Dennis Hopper!)

For a made-for-HBO TV movie, this is infinitely better than it has any right to be. The mood of the era is captured beautifully, the cast is absolute dynamite, the plot is interesting, the wild concept doesn’t dominate proceedings, and I was interested from beginning to end. If you’d like to watch it, it’s available for free too, so knock yourselves out.

One last thing – there’s lots of comparisons made by other reviewers to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and…I guess? I don’t really see it myself, although admittedly there’s a private eye, the period setting and the wild world that everyone accepts as reality. Okay, so I may have just convinced myself, although this is perhaps a little darker than that was. It has more in common with something like “The Rocketeer”, an underrated gem from the same sort of era and about the same sort of era.

Rating: thumbs up

An evening with Mark Hamill

The Moolah Theatre in St Louis is a wonderful place, with a big screen, a bowling alley, and (more interesting for people such as you and I) regular Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays showing some of the oddest, stupidest or most obscure entries that cinema has to offer. I’m only annoyed it’s taken me this long to discover them – I missed a double feature of “Eating Raoul” and “Death Race 2000” in December – so I was delighted to go along for the latest “Weirdo Wednesday” showing, entitled “Off Brand Mark Hamill”.

Sadly for him, Hamill had a long fallow period in between “Return Of The Jedi” and getting the gig as the voice of the Joker in the animated “Batman” series in 1994, a role which is almost as beloved among us nerds as Mr Skywalker. He did a Jess Franco movie, for heavens’ sake! We quite liked his 1989 movie “Slipstream” though; tonight’s double-review features, from the comfort of the excellent sofas in the lounge of the Moolah, 1993’s “Time Runner” and 1991’s “Black Magic Woman”.

 

TIME RUNNER

I imagine, if I was Mark Hamill, I’d have turned up for the premiere of this (or, more likely, been sent a VHS tape of it when it was released) and gone “seriously, could you not have slipped those Star Wars references in there?” While it’s much more like “Terminator”, with a dash of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, there are some scenes which are straight-up lifted from Hamill’s most famous work, such as the opening scene where a small space ship is chased by a much much larger one.

It’s 2022, and Earth is under attack from aliens. It’s not looking good for humanity, their large space-station-defence-thing is destroyed and laser fire is raining down upon their cities. A group of scientists (whose impact on the plot is zero, in case you were wondering whether to pay attention to them or not) is trying to launch Earth’s last remaining weapons at the alien ships, and one vessel manages to escape the station and, while it’s running away, slip through a wormhole.

Now, I may not have been paying attention, but the wormhole just seems to appear at a convenient moment, not be summoned by pilot Michael Raynor (Hamill). Anyway, he slips back to 1992 and gets involved in a government conspiracy plot involving scientist Karen Donaldson (Rae Dawn Chong) on one side, and government intelligence agent Freeman (Mark Baur) on the other. Baur, whose career went nowhere, looks a bit like a pudgy middle-aged insurance salesman doing cosplay as Frank Zagarino’s character from “Project Shadowchaser”; and for some reason, Rae Dawn Chong has been given a weird thick bob haircut, a bit like Velma from “Scooby Doo”.

After Raynor’s escape craft is found by Donaldson and confiscated by Freeman, she finds him and the two of them bond for no good reason other than they’re both nice people. Anyway, Raynor and Donaldson run away from the agents, while every now and again he gets a vision of the wormhole and sees a potential future which he can then change (like, he sees a woman getting shot, so when that event starts to play out, he can alter it by pushing her out of the way). Also, he’s due to be born the next day, and as soon as the bad guys figure this out too, there’s another race on to save his mother.

When we discover that a few, some, or more of the people Raynor meets are actual aliens, hiding sleeper-cell like to wait for the big invasion of Earth, all bets are off. By the way, it’s never explained who the aliens are, where they’re from, what they look like (it’s possible they’re all exactly the same as us, I guess?) or why they’re invading. Oh, and Brion James, as the Planetary President from the future and just a lowly Senator in the present, is named “Neila”. Read that word backwards, and know that no matter how dumb you feel, you’re smarter than at least one Hollywood scriptwriter.

There’s a really curious gimmick to this movie – that Neila is in favour of social spending and against military spending…because that makes it easier for the aliens to invade! Do you see, we should be ignoring the poor, the homeless and the ill, on the off chance another war breaks out! But, if you can ignore that rather bad-taste coda, and enjoy the colourful characters and action-packed plot, there are many worse ways to spend an evening. Just don’t think about it too much, or the many many joins caused by the 5 credited writers (!) will become apparent.

BLACK MAGIC WOMAN

Imagine if “Fatal Attraction” were even more sexist than it already is.

Okay, that’s about 90% of the movie right there, but I guess I ought to give you a little more detail than that. This one starts off with a bunch of normal-looking women congregating on a house and doing some black magic – but for what purpose? All will be revealed (possibly not by me, as you might want to check it out).

ASIDE: That purpose definitely isn’t eroticism, as there’s zero nudity or any other shenanigans here. Now, that might be the edited VHS version I saw, as there’s some occasionally crude edits and all the swears are bleeped out, so I can’t comment on that. Possibly not worth bothering with if your interests are more earthy than the average viewer’s, though. There is a brilliant scene where Hamill is wearing a pair of briefs and he appears to be…well, let’s just say he looks bigger than average in one certain location.

Apologies. Hamill is Brad Travis, the owner of Stratus Gallery, the sort of hideous place that sold awful looking art to people with more money than sense; his partner / girlfriend is Diane Abbott (Amanda Wyss), and the two of them are doing okay, apart from him being a little too much of a flirt for her tastes – he’s just doing it to make sales, although to our 2018 eyes, he comes across as a complete sexual predator.

One day, into the gallery walks Cassandra (Apollonia, former protege of Prince and a surprisingly natural actor), and sparks fly. They’re hot for each other, despite Hamill not being, let’s say, a classically handsome or muscular fellow; and after another argument about his womanising with Diane, he happily hops into bed with Cassandra.

Diane goes off to New York to wrap up a deal – set up with one of the more jarring cameos I can remember, Larry Hankin (aka Mr Heckles from “Friends”) playing a rich fool’s brother – and Cassandra and Brad act like a couple for a few days. Here’s the curious layer to things: the two of them make a great couple, they seem natural and happy round each other in a way he never is with Diane. But Hollywood morality means the plot can only go one way, and when Diane gets back from NY and sees the two of them together, she gets really angry and then supernaturally bad things start happening to him, including impotence and leukemia.

There’s a twist, and it’s surprisingly clever and well-laid out, if you ignore the couple of gigantic red herrings the movie lays in our path. There are some good characters, too, such as Brad’s housekeeper Carlita, the voodoo doctor who helps Brad, the doctor’s assistant, and so on.

Quite surprisingly, the director of this oddity was a woman, Deryn Warren. Brad’s desire to sleep with whoever he wants being treated as normal and good, the shrewish nature of Diane, the wild bitterness of Cassandra, the fact that not once does Brad ever consider just apologising, the meaning of the twist…these feel like they came from a fairly sexist guy. But maybe I’m missing something? Or maybe she just wasn’t very good? (this was her third movie as director, and her last for almost 20 years – she returned in 2008). The writer, responsible for all Warren’s other movies too, is Jerry Daly, who we’ve met once before, as he also wrote “Witchcraft 3”, which I didn’t like (the last word of my review of that was “avoid”).

I’m trying to think of something worthwhile to say about “Black Magic Woman”. Perhaps that half the budget was clearly spent on the rights to the titular song? It wasn’t boring, which I was surprised by, but it definitely wasn’t good. I think Apollonia was hired mostly for her looks and ended up blowing the other two main cast members out of the water in the acting stakes, which leaves it feeling a little lop-sided. Why did a selfish dullard inspire such obsession in two different women?

All questions we’re never going to get the answers to. But, I had a great night and if you’re in the area, you really ought to come along to one of the Moolah’s next movie evenings.

Rating for the evening: thumbs up

Rating for the movies: thumbs down

Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)

After a franchise resurrecting movie which didn’t have the action, the humour or the technical chops to be enjoyable enough, we have a sequel which, despite a lower budget, fewer stars and a writer/director I’d never heard of, manages to be vastly more entertaining. All those little things that fell flat in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” work exactly as they’re supposed to here.

The theme of this movie is, if you’re really good at martial arts, you can predict the future. Well, there’s other stuff to it, but you’ll definitely turn it off with that impression. Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi) and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) are on a train going through the mountains, and their dance number is interrupted by a bunch of bad hombres who want to kidnap her and kill him. A few well-places kicks and a fight on top of a train later, and…it was all a dream! But, despite him never meeting these people before, a whole bunch of them turn up as the villain’s goons in the last third, and Kurt has that “where do I know you from?” face.

Kurt’s a UFC (or whatever off-brand cage-based fighting league they’re saying it is) fighter now, living his best life and making mincemeat out of his opponents. After getting kidnapped by a couple of fake cops one night, he finds himself in Thailand, in front of the fellow we presume is part 1’s unseen Mr Big, Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert, who should have fired his agent around 1990, and now looks like the reanimated zombie version of himself). It’s a matter of honour that Kurt should give him a chance for a rematch, and is even prepared to pay him a million dollars for another fight to the death. If not, well, they’re fully prepared to throw him in a Thai jail for the murder of Tong Po in “Vengeance”…despite, one would imagine, that all having been cleaned up a while ago, what with his wife being a cop at the time and them not exactly leaving Thailand in a hurry.

But, you may not have seen “Vengeance”? So let’s not poke too many holes in the continuity, as continuity snobs are the worst – yes, I’m definitely one myself, but I’d go to Continuity Snobs Anonymous if I could.

Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and the first thing he does is fight his way through the place in a brilliant fight scene which is all done in one continuous take. I mean, it’s not really, as you can see the cuts, and it’s a very long way from the frenetic pace of the modern classic of this mini-genre, Tony Jaa kicking an entire hotel’s ass in “The Protector”; but they’re trying! It’s easily better than any individual scene in “Vengeance”.

So, he hangs out in prison, not breaking as Mr Moore throws everything he can at Kurt to get him to submit, including regular whippings. Eventually, Kurt discovers a little gang of friends inside the jail, including his old trainer Master Durand – a welcome return for Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was blinded after the events of part 1 for his role in the murder of Tong Po; a footballer, played by real-life Brazilian footie legend and far-right lunatic Ronaldinho; and Briggs, a boxer, played by Mike Tyson. The scene where Kurt meets Briggs is hilarious, because you can imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get Tyson to appear – even though Kurt is supposedly one of the world’s best martial artists, the 51 year old Tyson has to win the fight and do cool stuff like punch straight through walls and so on. There are also a boatload of appearances from UFC guys like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua playing pretty much themselves.

As well as learning to box, he gets some wisdom from Durand. Now he’s blind (sort of a reference to his other beloved 80s franchise “Bloodsport”), his other senses are heightened, which results in him being able to “see” where a blow will land before it’s even thrown (not sure what sense this is, but whatever, it’s not played seriously anyway). Both these new skills are shown to us in that favourite of all scenes, the training montage! I love a training montage! Oh, and he can even “see” fights he’s not involved in due to sensing the air, or something. I have no idea, but it’s wonderful.

The guy he’s got to fight is Mongkut, played by none other than Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, former World’s Strongest Man contestant and currently The Mountain on “Game Of Thrones”. He’s genetically engineered like Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky 4”, for much the same purpose, even though you might wonder why a 6’8”, 400 lb beast of a man needs any more chemical help to beat up the 6’0”, 200 lb Kurt. The bit during the final fight, when Mongkut’s hipster trainer / technician just openly shoots him up with high-grade pharmaceuticals at ringside, is a hoot.

There are a few logic holes that, weirdly, just add to the camp charm of this gem of a movie. Even though Kurt is presumably a relatively famous martial artist back in the States, no-one seems to give a damn about getting him out of the jail where he was illegally kidnapped and taken to…apart from his wife, thank heavens. His American promoter doesn’t send over a group of tough dudes to bust him out, or anything! There’s also the way that in this almost entirely Thailand-set movie, none of the people we meet (apart from background extras and so on) is Thai. Hero and villain are both white Westerners, the villain’s boss is French, the main people in the jail are a black American, a Belgian and a Brazilian, the fight MC apparently has Asian, Hispanic, French and Native American ancestry….you’re about twenty people deep in the cast list before you get to anyone who’s actually from the country they’re traipsing through, and that person has the huge role of “Female Valet No.1”. One last bit of racial business – the chanting of “White Warrior” by the crowd during the final fight was problematic in “Vengeance” (although perhaps I’m missing something in translation) but its return here makes literally no sense as both competitors are white.

But please put any notion I didn’t enjoy this far from your mind. I loved it, and I think you will too. First up, the fights are very well shot, with the epic final confrontation even telling some of the story, and the action is fun and exciting. Kudos to director Dimitri Logothetis, who, if he’s known at all, is as a producer, not a writer / director (although he’s done all three). I imagine there’s an interesting story behind it all, or perhaps he just came into some money and bought into the relaunching franchise. Who knows? But he’s a great match for the material.

The script is over the top in all sorts of subtle ways, and it appears Moussi learned a lot about acting in the intervening years, as he’s able to deliver its ludicrous premise much better than he did before. I do like how some of the reviews of this complain about the silliness, as if a movie about an underground fight league where people are regularly murdered by a giant steroid freak should be serious business. Come on! What some people seem desperate to forget about the golden age of martial arts movies is that they were, by and large, silly as hell. That’s fine, of course, and you can still have tight action and good performances in a camp movie (which I believe “Retaliation” achieves).

Okay, before I leave you, I want to talk Bad Guy Economics, one of my favourite subjects. Moore puts his giant up against Kurt, and works hard to ensure Mongkut wins – including injecting him with steroids at ringside. Now, given Moore is in charge of the betting, who the hell is betting against the monster, especially after the first round when Kurt is virtually dead and Mongkut is entirely unharmed? No matter how short the odds, everyone would have been betting one way, so he’s definitely going to lose money, right? He really ought to be either telling Mongkut to go easy on him for a while, or to finish things off quickly, because the longer it goes on the worse his payday gets. Or, he should want Kurt to pull off the upset!

Rating: thumbs up

Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

It was with great excitement I greeted the news of a new entry into the Kickboxer franchise. The series, which started off with Jean-Claude Van Damme before handing the reins over to the excellent Sasha Mitchell (and then, briefly, Mark Dacascos), was a lot of fun – even though some of the series was directed by ISCFC Hall of Shamer Albert Pyun – with colourful locations, and lots and lots of fights. They also established / popularised the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which goes as follows:

  1. Two brothers / best friends, one of whom is a champion fighter

  2. Champion fighter is killed by a master of a slightly different martial art

  3. Brother / best friend tries to get revenge and fails

  4. He (it’s always a he) goes to exotic locale, learns new martial art

  5. He falls in love with a local who really doesn’t want him to die against villain X

  6. Revenge is had

Although there are some minor differences, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” follows this plot almost to a T. But it’s got the extra fun of starring some fairly big name UFC fighters, martial arts / acting crossover star Gina Carano, and JCVD in a supporting role, showing that he’s kinda sorta learned how to act in the intervening years.

I’ve long disliked the trope of show a clip, then go “6 months earlier”, because it’s often done by people who don’t really understand it, because they’ve seen it done in other better movies and want a bit of that class. Much is the same here, as we start with Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi, better known as a stunt performer) goes to the compound of Tong Po in order to train – only, he’s not there to train, he wants revenge for the death of his brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi, who we’ve covered before and is sadly missed, having died in 2015). He gets his ass kicked, of course, but Tong Po lets him go rather than killing him. Insult!

Tong Po’s gatekeeper is played by UFC champ Georges St Pierre, who, what he lacks in acting ability, makes up for in lack of acting ability; one of the other goons is UFC guy Cain Velasquez; and Tong Po himself is former WWE guy, surprisingly good actor and current star Dave Bautista. Judging by Shahlavi’s involvement (he died early in 2015) this was probably made in 2014, before “Guardians of the Galaxy” pushed him out of the price range of productions like this, one would have thought.

I was also about to make a slight comment about how sad it is Tong Po, judging by his name, has never once been played by an actual Asian actor (the guy who played him in parts 1-3, Michel Qissi, is Moroccan/Belgian, and his replacement for part 4 is Kamel Krifa, a Tunisian). But, Mr Bautista has a Filipino father, which makes him closest, geographically speaking. Sort of well done, movie! My wife also didn’t believe Liu, the cop / love interest was a local either, but she’s Sara Malakul Lane, ISCFC regular (“Sharktopus”, “100 Degrees Below Zero”), and half-Thai, which means they can have scenes where she’s talking to locals and other cops and it can be in actual Thai, not just heavily accented English.

Anyway, back to the movie! If you don’t love training montages, I don’t think we would ever be friends. This movie features a couple of beauties, where Kurt is taken by Liu to hide out at Master Durand’s place and Durand takes him from zero to hero. JCVD plays him in a half-homage to Xian from the original, half as a weird hipster gone to seed sort of guy, and it works. There’s a recreation of the famous scene from the original where the trainer takes Kurt to a bar and gets him involved in a brawl to test his mettle, too.

Gina Carano, who I think deserves better roles than the sort of middling straight-to-VOD stuff she’s gotten recently, has a very curious role in “Kickboxer”. She’s the fight promoter for Tong Po, responsible for getting Eric to go to Thailand to fight him, and seems genuinely upset that he died (perhaps they had a relationship). And given that Eric was also trained by Durand, her remorse appears genuine…until she reveals her true colours later. Also, she never so much as throws a punch in this movie, a curious choice at best (it’s like having Fred Astaire and not having him dance). Best guess is they hired her for a day or two and having her fight was too expensive. But it’s a shame, and her weird motivation doesn’t help. Also, they pay Eric $200,000 to fight, and when you see the contest, it’s in what looks like the back room of a bar with maybe 200 people in attendance, none of whom look that rich. No signs of broadcast, no betting going on. How’s she making her money in all this?

I want to talk two scenes now, which I think reveal the rather shoddy finished product that we get. One is a fight on top of two elephants. Now this sounds exciting, and in different hands it would be! But what director John Stockwell gives us is perhaps the least convincing fake elephants of all time, with occasional cuts to real elephants that definitely don’t have anyone on top of them. Now, I don’t want animals to be abused for the sake of my entertainment, but if you’re going to use fakes, either use better ones or cut around them more. Come on!

And the second scene is when Carano sends her goons to kill Liu…and tells them to “make it messy”. Again, could be a great scene! But what we get is one guy. They send one guy! And he, despite having all the time in the world to hide and aim his rifle, misses them all and then dies fairly quickly. Could they not have just filled a car up with bad guys?

Alan Moussi is a gifted screen fighter, for sure, but he needs better direction than he was given. A huge majority of his fights are just repeated attempts to go for some wildly OTT manoeuvre like a double-back-flip kick or a Superman punch, and he gets blocked and thrown to the ground every time. Learn to stop doing that! After a while, it just becomes monotonous, and I don’t think it’s being played for laughs either.

It appears there was some rather substantial reshooting of the final fight scene, as there are quite a lot of cuts where you don’t see Van Damme’s face, indicating he wasn’t there, and his voice is dubbed by a very different sounding actor. Plus, they show the same scene of him looking slightly pensive maybe five times.

I wonder what Bautista thinks of his role in this. While he’s a bad guy – watching his trainees beat the crap out of each other, he just gets bored and wanders back into his room, where two women immediately stop what they’re doing, disrobe and join him – he’s not really bad enough. He treats Kurt, at least in the beginning, with a modicum of honour, and is seen meditating in front of a statue of the Buddha. He doesn’t strike me as a man villainous enough to kill the multiple in-ring competitors the MC tells us he’s killed, and he’s a little too low-key.

One last point – the presence of UFC fighters hints at this, but the last 20 years have proved to us that Eastern martial arts, Muay Thai among them (the exotic skill Kurt has to learn) is no better than any system designed anywhere else. UFC fighters have to be able to box and wrestle as well, and a fighter who only specialises in one style is going to get their ass kicked, quickly. So it’s weird to see the fetishisation of the mystic East here, which you can forgive in the pre-UFC days the original movie existed in but not so much now.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Stockwell is that good a director, or has any particular flair for martial arts movies. The original was made by a couple of journeymen too, but its definite B-movie aesthetic made it more willing to be slightly camp, plus the fights were very well staged. While “Kickboxer: Vengeance” has some humour in it, it takes itself a little too seriously, I think – as an example of what could have been, Alan Moussi recreates JCVD’s famous dancing scene…over the end credits. Too little, too late! And even though having your stars able to fight means there’s little having to edit round them, I feel Stockwell never takes advantage of this.

I was really pleased to hear about this, and thought up to the point I pressed play that I would have a good time with it. But, while it has its moments, it’s just not quite up to the standard of the original.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Puppet Master: Axis Termination (2017)

Puppet Master is back! After a break of five years since 2012’s “Axis Rising”, the WW2 setting of the previous movies continues. This also represents the first series to have made a new instalment since we’ve started covering them. But let’s talk Full Moon for a minute first!

After “Axis Rising”, apparently, Charles Band promised Full Moon’s fans that there would be a new Puppet Master movie every year. This, of course, didn’t happen. They’ve been too busy churning out new instalments in the “Evil Bong” franchise, I guess? Then, they decided to do an Indiegogo campaign for “Axis Termination”, which was apparently a success although if the news of its existence didn’t make it to me (I’m on their mailing list), I’m not sure how well it was advertised. Anyway, the $77,000 or so they raised allowed them to surpass their goals and bring back Six-Shooter, one of the more beloved of the puppets.

Now, a cruel, or realistic, person might say “perhaps if you can’t afford to make it, don’t” but clearly none of those people spoke to Charles Band before production. If you’re an extremely well-established movie company with a decent fanbase, how on earth do you need to raise money before the actual thing-that’s-supposed-to-make-profit release? The money that was raised for Six-Shooter, by the way, resulted in a grand total of ten seconds of screen time and basically no animation for his puppet. We were promised stop-motion, and there’s perhaps a few seconds of that, too – the low point for special effects comes when we’re treated to a long-shot of a few of the puppets, which is clearly just people in puppet costumes filmed from a distance (they move entirely unlike our friends normally do, for one). We were also promised puppet Torch, but they obviously couldn’t afford to animate him…er, “couldn’t find a place for him in the script”.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, a little. Full Moon being somewhat economical with the truth and acting like scumbag carnies (one of the reasons they were dropped from their major studio development deal back in the 90s, I’d have thought, from which they’ve been dying a slow death ever since) is old hat indeed. Let’s talk the result of their campaign.

Friend of ISCFC Jean Louise O’Sullivan, by far the best thing about the last chapter, does the Final Girl thing of being killed immediately at the beginning of the next – her boyfriend’s muscle-bound Army brother Brooks cradles her dying body and vows to look after her sack o’puppets. Almost immediately, the movie then pivots to be a black magic movie, as evil Nazi black magic guy Sturmbahnfurher Krabke and evil Nazi scientist Dr. Gerde Ernst try, for some reason, to find the formula for the serum that creates the puppets. They both have extremely deadly psychic powers, so quite why they’re so determined to master the puppets, when the little fellas are, to be fair, a bit limited, is a question the movie never answers.

In fact, the entire puppet cast is secondary to proceedings – the Nazi puppets Bombshell, Blitzkreig and Weremacht; good puppets Blade, Pinhead, Leech Woman, Tunneler, Jester and Six-Shooter (with the last two barely even making an appearance) could be removed and I’m not sure anything would be that different. The good guys have a black magic fellow too, “Russian” Dr Ivan Ivanov (who, even though they draw attention to his accent, sounds completely English throughout – fun fact, he’s also Peter Dinklage’s stunt double in “Game Of Thrones”) and the real conflict is between those two forces. The only two puppets who get anything close to any animation are Blade and Tunneler – a few of the others are just shown hanging on to people’s backs as they thrash about in pain.

What they’ve done is really camp things up. Out are the realistic-ish characters of the previous two instalments, in are wild overacting Nazis and weird colourful Russians and impossibly brave square-jawed American soldiers. They’ve also removed the central character of Andre Toulon, the guy who created the puppets – he shows up in footage borrowed from part 1, at the beginning of 2010’s “Axis of Evil”, and since then he’s been written out of the story, basically. Well, as much story as there’s actually been (all three movies could reasonably have been made into one good, action packed one). I know he’s supposed to be dead, but that never stopped anyone before, and it’s weird that his name never even comes up.

This camp element could be fun, and a few of the actors go for it, but it’s so amateurishly acted in the main, poorly made and leadenly directed by Charles Band (garishly lit interiors, no visual flair at all) that it ends up not being that enjoyable. I can see what they were going for but I genuinely expected more from a guy who’s been making movies for over 30 years. He must have developed some directing chops, right?

While my first hope is that this franchise is now done with forever, I’m aware enough to know that’s not going to happen. I at least hope we can wave goodbye to this setting, which is among the more pointless cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac?) in horror franchise history and has never done anything remotely interesting (that wasn’t already done to much greater effect in part 3, also set during WW2 but with the benefit of a budget).

While it’s not as awful as “Axis Of Evil”, or “The Legacy” (which remains the most shameful pathetic rip-off of a movie we’ve covered at the ISCFC), it’s still bad. At least it’s short, scraping in at 74 minutes, with a decent amount of that being credits? Avoid, obviously, unless you’re a glutton for punishment.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – 2018 is set to bring us bizarre Puppet Master news – a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, called “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich”, starring Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Mattias Hues, Barbara Crampton and Michael Pare, among others! I mention it because I’m not entirely convinced it’s not just a joke or a tax dodge or something, but if it is released this year, we’ll be there to cover it.