Interceptor Force 2 (2002)

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The two “Interceptor Force” installments represent the early days of SyFy (then Sci-Fi) Channel original movies. The first movie wasn’t made for them, much like “Epoch”, but was bought in soon after and became a ratings hit; SyFy then quickly greenlit sequels for both. “Epoch: Evolution” was rubbish, with a garbled religious message (the main actor’s son was the Messiah), so it’s nice to see a sequel that is an improvement in several ways over its predecessor (while still having plenty of weird stuff to mock and talk about).

 

We’re once again treated to an opening scene of Olivier Gruner being a badass, so you know he’s got legit skills for later – in this instance he beats up a bunch of Chechen freedom fighters in a scene that makes you realise how important fight choreographers are to movies. One of my pet hates is when the hero beats up a bunch of people, but the guy who’s fifth in line does nothing to defend himself despite having ages (relatively speaking) to draw his gun, move away, whatever. Oh, and right at the end of the “cold open”, before he leaps off a bridge right into the cockpit of a hovering fighter-jet (!), he drives a bike away from the rebel camp, but all the soldiers are able to keep up with him on foot, comfortably. But luckily, this “we have no idea what we’re doing” attitude fades away quite quickly and we’re on to more normal action.

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It turns out another alien has come to Earth, with a remarkably similar skill set to the fellow from part 1, only more super-powered. This one can vapourise you with a touch and then assume your physical appearance, and, quickly infiltrating a Russian army base (it got shot down over Eastern Russia), it…blows up a Wooden Tower! Yes, our favourite prop in the movies is back, and as my friend Rich said last night, you really ought to store your high explosives and barrels full of flammable material somewhere else, because one shot and it explodes, sending the guard inside flying to his death. RIP Wooden Tower! We’ll see you again soon!

 

As most of the cast died at the end of the last movie, and Brad Dourif’s gambling debt to the producer was paid off via his appearance in part 1, we need some new cast members. Boss of Interceptor Force (which has a sweet new logo that the camera focuses on for far too long) is Nigel Bennett, best remembered for the evil chap in all-time great cheesy 90s vampire TV show “Forever Knight”; Gruner’s sidekick / best mate is the great Roger Cross (“Continuum”, “Dark Matter”, “24”), the weapons expert is a former German “Big Brother” contestant who also had a music career at the time; the tech expert is Adriana Sikes, played by Elizabeth Gracen, who was the comic relief / love interest in later seasons of “Highlander: The Series”; and the scientist who’s not really part of the team at the beginning is Adrienne Marie Wilkinson, best known from her run on “Xena: Warrior Princess”.  If you’re a fan of genre TV, this movie is populated with its royalty!

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The first thing to note is the budget is substantially bigger than part 1. The team are given fancy new weapons, including one that fires razor-sharp chains, and another that scrambles a thing’s molecules – they don’t look like cheap cosplay props, which is a definite improvement. The sets are bigger and better too; as well as blowing up a few buildings, the inside of the nuclear power plant where about half the movie is set looks good too. There’s a scene on a plane which looks like it was actually filmed on a plane, a huge step up from part 1 (although watching the cast jiggle with turbulence, I couldn’t help but notice how bad they all looked).

 

The movie seems like it’s going to be similar to “The Hidden”, the great alien-loose-on-Earth movie, but ends up more as a cross between that and “The Thing”. But, it never really commits to one or the other, so there’s no tension when they’re wondering “are you human or not?” and basically no use of the camouflage trick to infiltrate a group of humans. It wanders close-ish to “Alien” territory, if we’re being honest, just an “Alien” that’s able to insult the life choices of the main cast (there’s a surprising amount of back-chat from our alien friend, who’s – wouldn’t you know it – the partner of the alien they killed in the first movie). Oh, one of the sleazy Russian soldiers who’s there to help out I-Force (nice try for a cooler name), it turns out, stored a bunch of black market nuclear warheads inside the nuclear power plant, and the alien figures out how to detonate them, in revenge for its mate, I guess?

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I like the characters and like their rapport with each other, so kudos to director Philip Roth this time. The relative absence of a team member who’s secretly plotting against the other team members is quite refreshing to see in a movie like this, so kudos again. Okay, there’s a romance at the end which wasn’t so much as hinted at during the previous 90 minutes; and the expert at the Interceptor Force base who suddenly appears with 30 minutes to go and then becomes sort-of a main character is a curious choice (also, he doesn’t look like an actor, at all, so maybe he’s one of the producers who insisted on a part). But by and large, no arguments on that score.

 

There’s a couple of logic holes, which begin to irritate the longer the movie goes on, though. The constant transformation of the creature makes no sense – in several scenes, the switching between its actual form and one of a handful of humans it’s vapourised makes its job much more difficult. It appears to have control over it, as it does sneak out of a few spots thanks to being transformed, but it’s still pretty dumb. And then there’s the death of a main character, which comes out of nowhere and really brings the tone of the last 20 minutes down. It feels like someone didn’t read their “scriptwriting for dummies” book, as the tension that built up between them should have been resolved in a fight, or friendship, not in “whoops, I shot you because I thought you were the alien”. I did begin to wish, too, after the millionth bullet was fired at it and it did nothing but annoy it a bit, that they’d stopped and tried to figure out a slightly better plan. How often do you need to fail at something before you give up? Quite a lot, is the answer, if you’re anyone in this movie.

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This is a strong entry for SyFy, though. Gruner never really got better as an actor, but he tries, bless him, and they’ve surrounded him with a capable and charismatic bunch. The action is solid, if occasionally a little less than logical, the scenery is lovely (when they’re outside) and decent-looking (when they’re inside).

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Interceptor Force (1999)

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I think I might write a longer piece on the golden age of video shops at some point soon. There’s at least one book (“The Golden Age Of Crap”) which is a collection of reviews of the films released in that period (with plenty of background, too), and probably loads of scholarly articles, but none from the perspective of a socialist, sci-fi / slasher movie aficionado, too much time on his hands 40 year old. So look out for that, and if you have any cool photographs of video racks in corner shops from way back when, please send them in.

 

But in the meantime, there are yet more Olivier Gruner starring, Phillip Roth directed, sci-fi movies of the late 90s / early 2000s to review. Gruner is Shaun, who is introduced stealing important documents then beating the crap out of a bunch of guys with guns with his hands tied behind his back, just so you know how badass he is. He’s in charge of a small group of military types called Interceptor Force, who do the jobs the real military can’t, or something. Their boss is Brad Dourif (did he owe the director money?) and has he got a mission for them!

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In my last Roth / Gruner review (“Velocity Trap”) I spent ages just recapping the insane first twenty minutes of plot, and I could very comfortably do the same thing here. I think the issue is, there’s too much “stuff” in it. There’s an alien ship being shot down with a nuke and the escape pod crashing in Mexico; Interceptor Force being told it’s a normal military plane crash; them being given new team members, who clearly know more than they’re letting on; there’s a huge conspiracy involving multiple governments; and the Mexican village the escape pod landed in is apparently controlled by a drug cartel which has local law enforcement in its pocket. That’s a lot of plot for a 90 minute sci-fi B movie, right? When they leave out important stuff – like, what Interceptor Force actually is, who they work for, and so on – you will sort of wish they’d crammed a little less in, and let the important stuff breathe a little. The Mexican village which is apparently Drug Central is just a completely normal looking little rural village, with a gang of about ten guys in it, who all dress like normal villagers (apart from the leader, who appears to be channeling Antonio Banderas in “Desperado”), which leads me to wonder why they didn’t simplify the whole process a bit.

 

So, when all the plots have been revealed, Shaun and his comrades have to take on a creature which is a lot Predator-y (an alien that can go “invisible”), a bit chameleon-y (if it eats you, it can transform itself into you), and a bit Nightcrawler from X Men-y (it can sort of turn itself into smoke and teleport). His team (and the rest of the cast) is populated with B-movie mainstays – you’ve got William Zabka (“Karate Kid”) as his sidekick Dave, Glenn Plummer (“Speed”, “Showgirls”) as the tech guy, and as well as Brad Dourif, the main army guy (who honestly sounds drunk through most of his performance) is the great Ernie Hudson.

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The action in the Mexican town is a lot of fun, but there are some really bizarre little moments leading up to it that make you wonder if anyone was paying attention during filming. While on the plane to get to Mexico, rather than sit in their seats, they sit inside the 4×4 in the hold – I mean, they clearly didn’t have the money for a plane set, but it looks so strange visually! There’s also the way Dourif talks, as if he understands every bit of his dialogue is the worst exposition, like he’s having to explain the plot to a 7 year old, and resents being there. Or there’s how the new female member of the crew has chosen fashion leather trousers to wear to go on the mission.

 

So, while the cheap CGI alien does its thing (when it transforms into dead team members, it’s a nice budget saver), the movie covers up for its fairly standard progression by just having even more stuff which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Sending a group of soldiers to fight an almost indestructible alien but not telling them what they’re up against is a recipe for getting them all killed; and as they’re told quite quickly by one of the new team members, makes less than no sense. There’s the way Gruner is able to beat a nuclear strike’s spreading sphere of destruction by just running away, and obviously suffers no ill effects.

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But the final scene deserves its own paragraph. Gruner survives (there’s a sequel, come on, it’s not that bad a spoiler) and, walking out of town, sees a young woman sat by the side of the road, crying. He looks around, but there’s no-one else there…then punches the woman in the face! When she reacts like any woman punched in the face by a pro martial artist would react, he apologises and the movie fades to black with a woman we’ve not met to this point kicking and shouting at Gruner as they walk across the plain, back towards civilisation. What the hell? Playing assault of a woman for laughs, as THE CLIMAX OF YOUR MOVIE, is genuinely one of the oddest choices I can think of a movie making.

 

Throw in the dreadful incidental music which plays over almost every second of the movie, no matter the scene, and you’ve got yourself another splendidly odd little movie from the Gruner / Roth stable.  They don’t make enough weird counter-productive choices to get themselves into rarefied bad movie company, but for what appears to be a straight sci-fi / action B-movie, it’s weird as hell and absolutely worth putting on. Will the sequel be as good? Visit us in a few days for the answer!

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Youtube Film Club: Velocity Trap (1999)

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Of all the wonderful genres running through the golden age of VHS (early 80s to late 90s?) my personal favourite was always proper sci-fi, with spaceships, weird guns and so on. We’ve covered a fair few of them here, and it’s always nice to discover another one, especially as the decent budgets allowed for movies back then (straight to video being reasonably lucrative) meant they tended to look okay and weren’t quite as difficult to watch as some of today’s bargain-basement efforts.

It’s a welcome and quick return to the ISCFC for Olivier Gruner, last seen by us in “The Circuit 3”. For a former martial artist, he’s an okay actor, and doesn’t seem crazy like a Seagal or a Van Damme. He’s recently moved into writing and directing (with apparently disastrous results, which means I’ll be reviewing them soon), but this is from his strongest era – from 1999 to 2002, he appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows.  Add in director Philip Roth, who seems to have spent his career giving the world exactly the sort of movies I like, and we should be on for a good time; and a good time it is, although it really requires you to not think about the plot at all, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent during the course of this review.

 

Gruner is Ray Stokes, Enforcement Division (ED) officer. He gets a couple of crooked ED guys arrested, so the people who were benefiting from all the crookedness decide to get even with him. Right at the very beginning, the plan gets crazy convoluted, and I don’t feel I can unpick it without telling you all of it – don’t worry, it’s all right at the beginning and doesn’t spoil too much. Ready?

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The guy in charge of the moon of Ramanaya, and the Ramanaya Mining Corporation, John Dawson (Craig Wasson, “That Guy” actor extraordinaire), is married to Stokes’ ex-wife. Marriage contracts are fixed-term in the future, but Stokes wanted to stay married, although he was a marine at the time, though, and was away for years. They had a baby who died during one of those times away, so Dawson helped her with the medical bills and then swooped in when she was vulnerable. This woman is so remarkable, though, and Dawson wants to keep her so much, that he arranges for Stokes to be on duty when the chief of all the galaxy’s ED comes to the moon; then, he plants a bomb which kills that guy, and gets one of his other goons to kill Dawson’s fellow officer in the ensuing chaos, pinning the murder on him. I hope you’re asking “why didn’t he just kill Stokes and make it look like an accident?”, to which the answer is “he didn’t want to make his wife sad, because she still loves Stokes”. All that, just because he wanted a quiet life at home! He then, of course, ruins this by arranging for Stokes to be given the worst ED detail possible, then mocking him as he leaves the moon, without a care for how his wife feels. And all this is the beginning of the first act!

 

So begins yet another “Die Hard in space” clone, with the added bonus of it being a bit like “The Count Of Monte Cristo”. I’ll give “Velocity Trap” credit for doing a lot of work in setting up its universe, though, with the main driver of this one being cyber-crime has rendered electronic money transfers impossible. Humanity has gone back to paper money, and moves billions of dollars from outlying banks back to Earth via heavily armed ships (they have super-cool auto-cannons which blow up anything which gets within a certain distance, which we see thanks to a TV advert for them at the beginning of the movie). The ships are largely automated, with a skeleton crew – captain, navigator and engineer – but on this one, ED has decided to put an officer on board who’ll stay awake for the entire six month journey while the crew is in cryo-sleep.

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Joining Stokes is the captain of money ship FED 397 (Bruce Weitz, “Hill Street Blues”), who according to IMDB is called “Turd” Fenner; Cruz, the engineer; and Beth Sheffield, the navigator (Alicia “no relation to the famous ones” Coppola, a fine actor). For some reason, Beth and “Turd” take an instant dislike to Stokes, but Cruz is cool…although if you watch this, see if you can think of a reason why Cruz should perhaps be slightly worried about his presence on the ship. Anyway. “Fun” fact: Coppola was only on the movie because the original Beth got injured by shrapnel early in filming and quit.

 

3 months into the journey! Stokes is dealing with the boredom by making elaborate patterns out of chewing gum and doing a spot of ballet dancing, but his fun is interrupted when the Endeavour, a huge freighter long thought missing but now crewed by space pirates, plucks the FED 397 out of space and goes about stealing all the $40,000,000,000 from it. It then tries to be Die Hard for about ten minutes, as Stokes wakes up Beth and gets her to lie about there being anyone else on the ship…until he just emerges from behind a wall and threatens them. Idiot! So, from then on, it’s Stokes and Beth against the criminals, led by Nick Simmons (Ken Olandt, “April Fool’s Day”, “Leprechaun”) and his wife Alice Pallas (Jorja Fox, who must have signed up for “CSI” right after making this). They’re really good, and one thing Roth is superb at is sketching a character out well in very little time.

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Apologies if your eyes are glazing over right now, but there’s more lunacy to come. One thing you’ll notice is that this ship, carrying unimaginable amounts of wealth, has zero security or safety features (once the baddies are given inside info to disable the auto-cannons from attacking them). “Turd” takes Stokes’ bullets away because they might tear through the hull of the the ship – I think if you’re in space and a single bullet could do you in, you need to redesign your ships. But luckily, one of the villains fires a space-bazooka later on and the ship is fine – the bazooka is a prop so spectacularly cheap looking that even the most amateur cosplayer would be ashamed to carry it round. There’s one bit where Stokes is trying to escape, ends up in a service tunnel…and gets attacked by a huge robot with lasers! Hey, robot, why weren’t you protecting the rest of the ship? Why were you not mentioned before or after? At every stage where you’d expect a space ship months from humanity to have a feature to deal with a problem, it doesn’t.

 

“Velocity Trap” is absolutely packed to the gills with stuff. Enough plot for two sci-fi B-movies, a wild pace that ensures you’re never bored and don’t get too long to question the bonkers thing you just saw, and plenty of funny little moments too. There’s so much, that every now and again they have a newsreader to fill us in on any plot points we missed! The ending, when the two survivors (no spoilers!) decide what to do with the money is a wonderfully clever little bit of business.

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I really liked it, while acknowledging it’s full of plot holes and a bit on the silly side. Gruner is a fine lead, Coppola is excellent (and they’re freed from having an annoying love interest plot, because he just wants his wife back, and she hates him) and if you have any love for straight-to-video sci-fi, this’ll be right up your street. I think we’ll be doing some more Philip Roth movies, so look out for some 90s recommendations over the next week or so.

 

Rating: thumbs up

The Circuit 3: Street Monk (2006)

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If you’re going to make a low-budget action film, you need to make sure you do as well as possible with the things you have control over. That’s pretty much script and editing – you can’t get the best directors, actors or special effects when you’re in the bargain basement, but you can at least make sure your script makes sense and the editing assembles the film in a logical order.

 

Of course, if you’re Jalal Merhi, then these guidelines don’t apply to you. Producer, director and co-star of his own movies, Merhi is entertaining in a sea of trash because his films sort of look okay – actors look like actors, scenes are well-lit, fight scenes are usually decent; but they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most of the discussion about this movie will be about its plot and editing, because everything else is blandly competent.

 

OIivier Gruner, solidly dependable star of the first two movies and stuff like “Nemesis” (so he’s worked for both Albert Pyun and Jalal Merhi, poor fella) returns as Dirk Longstreet. Now, it’s been a while since I saw part 2, but I’m pretty sure he was exonerated at the end of that movie, so it’s a little weird to see him living the life of a fugitive, in a van by the beach, spending his days either surfing or taking part in a weird sort of fighting league where everything takes place on rocky outcrops with a helicopter watching. Not sure of the economics of this, but…eh, if I dwell too much on how this is bonkers, by the end I’ll be tearing my hair out.

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For some reason, he thinks his fiancé, left in a coma at the end of part 2, is dead, and because he’s dropped off the grid (apart from getting in touch with the people who organise the canyon-fighting) no-one can tell him his wife’s actually alive, and awake from her coma. This is, of course, entirely irrelevant to the plot.

 

Before we’ve had too much time to dwell on this, we’re transported to a strip club, which is also the home to another underground fight league, although the way they tell us is really confusing, with a fight breaking out in the middle of a normal evening of stripping, and suddenly everyone being super into the bloodshed. King of this league is “Spider” Webb (how many characters surnamed Webb in the movies have had the nickname Spider? I feel like it must be hundreds), played by badass actor James Lew, who’s been in a million things. Lew is awesome, but he’s fairly small and not in ripped shape, and would’ve been around 50 when this movie was filmed. Not the guy I’d have picked for my ultimate fighter, but whatever.

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Turns out that club owner Octavio Ventura (Jason Carter, “Babylon 5”), is also into human trafficking, including buying a teenage girl, Sherri, from her own stepfather for $15,000. Thanks to the dumbest kidnappers in the history of the movies – well, maybe running those from “Lauderdale” a close second – she’s able to escape, although where they’re going from and to is never mentioned, and luckily runs into Gruner on the beach, who after a little reluctance, helps her out, beating the crap out of the kidnappers with his surfboard. So they team up, and what follows is genuinely one of the more baffling sequences in movie history.

 

Apologies for going a bit in depth on this one. So, the kidnappers are told not to return unless they’ve got the girl with them, so one of the guys goes up to a group of surfers and pays them to find Dirk and “bring him in”. The scene with the surfers appears to be improvised, and I wouldn’t put it past Merhi to have gone to the beach and hired the first five guys he saw – so anyway, after this weird little scene, they find Dirk, exactly where he was the last time, and beat the crap out of him, all the while with the kidnappers watching from a distance. Then…they just leave him and go surfing again! After a few minutes, Dirk wakes up, goes into the water and kills all five surfers via taking them underwater and drowning them, then escapes the scene, while the people who wanted him beating up and bringing to them observe and do absolutely nothing. He’s not actually kidnapped and taken to the Strip Club Fight League for another half an hour or so, leaving act 2 exceptionally dull.

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The rest of the film is almost standard stuff, almost. We get one scene where Octavio is watching the fighters train, but he’s actually watching a CCTV feed of someone else watching the fighters train. Never change, Mr Merhi! Then, all his fighters, backstage, start beating up Dirk, which seems a foolish thing to do for such a big investment. After his first fight, the dreadful MC of the club says “World champion Dirk Longstreet does it again!” Er, what’s he world champion of? He was a teacher who used to be the top dog of an illegal fight circuit at the beginning of movie 1, and he’s done nothing since then to win any championship. During his apparent one-night domination of the Strip Club, he faces one bloke whose sole move is to get knocked down, then do a kip-up: seriously, he does like five of them in a row and it looks bonkers.

 

Right at the beginning of the movie, Octavio wants Sherri back partly because she can finger his entire organisation. At the end, he’s so upset with his dreadlocked assistant that he shoots her, non-lethally, gives her some severance money and tells her to get the hell out of his sight. Er, couldn’t she just go to the cops and get your operation shut down immediately? Have some consistency, man!

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Sorry for having to spoil the ending, dear reader, but it’s so odd that I just had to. Dirk wins all his fights, then right at the end takes on “Spider” Webb, the undefeated champion of the league, and kicks his ass in ten seconds. After, bear in mind, at least four other fights that same night, which must have tired him out a bit. So he and Sherri escape, then for absolutely no reason whatsoever he climbs onto the roof of the club for another, hopefully climactic, fight with Webb…then kicks his ass in ten seconds again, sending him off the roof to his death. Wait, what? That’s it? Well, there’s a coda where Dirk takes to the road, escaping what he thinks is an impending arrest (giving us a mumbled monologue about honour or something), and a meeting with Jalal Merhi (who was a newspaper editor in part 1 and just a buddy of Dirk’s in part 2), Sherri and Dirk’s fiancé, who decides on the spur of the moment to become Sherri’s new legal guardian / boss. I have no idea either.

 

You may notice that Loren Avedon, ISCFC favourite, is seventh billed in the credits. How hard did he have to work for that seventh billing? Well, his entire screen time is approximately ten seconds, so “not very” is the answer. But look at those credits, where his name is misspelled, as is that of the woman playing Sherri (Cristina Rosas), with the name of the woman above him in capitals for no reason. You might also notice that Gruner is never on screen with Merhi, Avedon, his wife or any of those people, which indicates to me there were some fairly serious post-production problems (I’d lay good money on this sitting on a shelf for several years, for one).

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I’d dismiss it as a shambles but this is Merhi we’re talking about, a man for whom the criticism “paid for movies just so he could be in them” is being too kind. But saying that, if you’re going to drop a million dollars on a movie, wouldn’t you at least try to make it make sense? How could he have possibly watched the finished version and thought it was in any way releasable? But his lack of anything approaching care is your gain, pop this on and provided you’re in the right mood, there’s a ton of unintentional laughs to be had.

 

Rating: thumbs down

The Circuit 2: The Final Punch (2002)

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I feel confident that not a single person reading this review will be doing so to judge whether or not to see the movie. It’s almost impossible to get hold of – not available on DVD in the UK, quite expensive on DVD in the US, and not available to stream online (as far as I can tell). I had to resort to a torrent, which froze at 75% complete; this will lead to some oddities in the review, as several scenes were viewed in oddly glitching sections – something would start, then the screen would go all weird colours for a second, then it would jump ahead a random amount (usually a few seconds, but often 30 or more). Combined with the less-than-stellar editing of ISCFC non-favourite Jalal Merhi, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a confusing movie.

 

Luckily, the plot is so simple that I could have watched this entire mess on fast-forward and still got the everything. The first “Circuit” movie was a ton of fun, with action B-movie superstars kicking ass in a story of an underground fight league, avenging a brother, all that good stuff. The sequel is, to be polite, more of the same! The fight league this time is inside a prison, and this fact, along with the initial fight we see, poses a heck of a lot of questions. The only audience is other inmates, so no-one’s making money out of it, and fights are often fatal, meaning there’s a lot of “people getting killed trying to escape” stories in the press. This seems like a poor business model! It turns out there’s inter-prison tournaments at night on deserted beaches, with wealthy invited guests, but there really doesn’t seem like enough of them to make it worth anyone’s while. But, picking logic holes in a Jalal Merhi film I’ve only seen 75% of is a fool’s errand, so let’s continue.

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Star of the first movie Olivier Gruner is back as Dirk Longstreet, undefeated Circuit champion turned college athletics tutor; he’s joined by his English reporter girlfriend Nicole, and she’s the person who reveals the details of the prison fight league. Ol’ Dirk saves one of his students from committing suicide – not sure why, glitch; then, attempting suicide is apparently enough to get you sent to prison, so the poor kid gets locked up. During a visit, Dirk finds out about the league, and Nicole gets kidnapped, so…you know what’s going to happen…he gets himself inside the prison! It’s basically done by inventing a transfer from another nearby jail and sneaking him onto a bus, with the only problem being he’s sort of famous in underground fighting circles. When the Governor phones the other Governor and says “why did you transfer such a badass fighter?”, the gig is up immediately.

 

This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise when you know Jalal Merhi dreamed up the plan, via his screenwriter Glen Doyle (whose 4 writing credits are all Merhi movies) – he’s also back to act as the editor of the newspaper, and they’re accompanied by pony-tailed legend Lorenzo Lamas as…not sure? A friend of the gang, I guess. I’ve just read a few other reviews and it seems no-one has any idea why he’s involved in this movie, so I’m happy to relay that information to you. What is important is the lovely little pug puppy that Longstreet and Nicole have does not die. Okay, both its owners are away for a very long time, but a friendly neighbour hopefully took it in.

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There’s just lots and lots of fighting. I know, not much of a surprise, but even in the “lots of fighting” genre, this one has more than average. Aside from Dirk and his MMA  style, everyone else sort of blends into a mass of samey punch-kickery. If you were expecting a bit of exploitation movie prison plotting, you’d be shit out of luck, it’s just the most convenient way to get all the people needed together with no way out.

 

I don’t like saying this about people, but I’m confident I’m a great deal smarter than Jalal Merhi. He’s in the business he’s in because he has money, pure and simple, and watching this is proof of that. There’s no tension built about Dirk fitting in, in prison – he’s just there and immediately fighting. The Governor finds out he’s not on the level but seemingly does nothing. We never find out if Nicole is okay or not, or why on earth the Governor let her go without killing her. The plans invented by the cast feel like the result of some kids inventing a game on their own. I know I’ve pointed out holes bigger than this in other movies, but the sense I got here is that Merhi genuinely thought he was being clever with all the plotting.

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Still, it’s entertaining, after a fashion. Gruner is an intense leading man, and a really good fighter; Lamas seems aware of how silly all this; I liked the beach location at the end; and, that’s about it. Perhaps of interest if you’re a Jalal Merhi completist, or just really like underground fight league movies (of which there are a surprisingly large amount), but otherwise avoid.

 

Rating: thumbs down

The Circuit (2002)

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I think we’ve reached the ultimate ISCFC movie. In terms of our martial arts reviews, this represents a coming together of elements of almost everything. Let’s list the main names:

Directed by:

Jalal Merhi (“Tiger Claws”, plus he has a cameo and is as terrible as ever)

Starring:

Olivier Gruner (“Nemesis”)

Bryan Genesse (“Screwballs 2: Loose Screws”, “Project Shadowchaser 2”, “Live Wire: Human Timebomb”)

Loren Avedon (“No Retreat: No Surrender 2”, many others)

Billy Drago (“Cyborg 2”, “Karate Cop”)

When I saw the opening credits, I was so excited! What I assumed would be just another “guy avenges dead brother in illicit martial arts tournament” movie would be so much more. What would Merhi do with the director’s chair, and would it be just as crazily incompetent as the acting and producing he did in the “Tiger Claws” trilogy?

Oh, you know he doesn’t disappoint! Olivier Gruner is Dirk Longstreet, a college athletics teacher. His younger brother Jeremy is a student there, and Jeremy’s girlfriend Denise is becoming increasingly unhappy with Jeremy’s disappearances. Dirk has to go and rescue her from a bunch of drunk assholes in a bar, and that’s when he’s seen by Kwan, the undefeated champion of The Circuit (Denise’s friend, even drunker than her, is either Ali Larter or an extremely good lookalike, but I can’t see why an already famous Larter would do an uncredited cameo for Jalal Merhi, so I’m probably wrong).

Genesse is Kwan’s sidekick Vixton Hack, the public face of the Circuit; and Avedon is Detective Sykes, a cop who’s interested in bringing them down. Sykes does absolutely nothing and could comfortably be removed from the movie and cause no problems at all – plus, it’d be a slightly shorter experience. Rounding out the cast is Merhi as the editor of a newspaper (who gets one of his scoops from just watching the TV news, a wonderful moment) and Gail Harris as Nicole Kent, ace investigative reporter and Dirk’s love interest. She’s from Batley, just up the road from where I’m writing this, and her local (to me) accent shines through quite a lot.

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Turns out Dirk is a former champion of The Circuit, undefeated and completely uninjured during his reign, and he’s the only person who’s ever managed to “escape”. Kwan wants to prove his superiority but, knowing Dirk won’t return by being asked politely, sets an oddly complicated plan in motion, which involves Vixton loaning Jeremy money to bet on a fight, then fixing the fight so Jeremy loses, then when Jeremy can’t pay him back forcing him to fight in the Circuit. This plan relies on Jeremy betting against the undefeated Kwan, by the way. It must be said that their plan trails off around here, and the only reason Dirk fights is down to the death of Billy Drago – the crippled trainer who’s secretly a good guy and helps him get ready.

Okay, if you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve seen at least one movie of this sort. Brother dies, hero has to train in order to defeat the villain. Simple, effective, and relatively tough to mess up. “The Circuit”, on the other hand, throws every bit of logic related to this archetype out of the window. Let’s have a go at breaking it down:

Act 1 – introducing the characters, and killing off the “brother”

Act 2 – hero trains in new martial arts style

Act 3 – revenge!

“The Circuit” keeps Jeremy alive, though, and has Drago be the sacrifice, way too close to the end, which leads to the odd image of Dirk training at a point in the movie when he has no real reason to do so. In fact, Dirk could just call the police as soon as he knows where the Circuit is, as his actions past that point have no real impact on how it ends. Also, they spend a decent amount of time at the beginning telling us that Dirk is a basically invincible fighter, so the whole training thing seems a bit on the pointless side, especially given he doesn’t use any of the “new” techniques he’s been taught in the big battle at the end. In case you think I’m being a bit facetious, Drago tells him “you’re using too many punches, we need to train you to do one punch, one knockout”. How many one-punch knockouts do you think feature in the rest of the action? Are you feeling the confusion of watching this movie yet? Act 1 sort of sloppily carries on til past the hour mark, act 2 is pointless and act 3 lasts about five minutes.

We could also talk weird tonal shifts and how they grate with the overall flow of the movie (such as it is). Nicole invites herself over for a “picnic” with Dirk, which inspires a whole scene where Dirk hurriedly cleans his house, set to comedy-style music. Okay, he’s horny, but…he’s in training for a fight to the death to save his brother! Then there’s Kwan, who after every victory…can’t quite believe I’m writing this…does a little Michael Jackson dance. He just killed someone! I get the feeling Merhi was all “yes, this is what normal Americans do”.

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Let’s go deeper. If you get a sport where one team or individual dominates, you run the risk of people getting bored and stopping spending their money on tickets or betting. Observe the Schumacher-dominated years of Formula 1 or any long undefeated period in boxing for an example of this. But not the Circuit, apparently! Kwan dominates (via cheating, which the opening credits handily gives us a clue about) and if I was going to a show, I’d just bet on him. I wouldn’t win a lot, but I’d definitely win, and if everyone did the same, the Circuit would be out of business immediately. Kwan’s fights also seem crazily one-sided, to the point I wrote down “who’s paying money and risking arrest to go and see this?”

I haven’t even talked about the fighting yet! It’s a relatively early example of MMA being used instead of just straight kung-fu or kickboxing, so Gruner does grapples and submission moves…it’s not terrible, and Gruner is decent. But the fights are all shot identically and don’t advance the story (most of the fights don’t even feature cast members, oddly); and they don’t even have Avedon or Genesse (both excellent screen fighters) kick any ass! But they did hire Bruce Buffer, the UFC announcer, to do the same job for the Circuit, which was a fun idea (even if Buffer’s introductions sounded like they were written by a crazy person and his phrasing was bizarre).

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Mix up some bad action, terrible acting, and a plot that makes less than no sense, and you’ve got yourself a winner. And we’ve got two sequels to look forward to!

Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club – Nemesis (1992)

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We review all sorts of films here – from comedy to horror to oddball documentaries to martial arts. My real love, though, is for the B-movies of the 80s and 90s – when video rental meant that there was budget enough for even relatively cheap films to look great (compared to movies of a similar ilk from today). If it’s vaguely sci-fi-related and was made in the era of straight-to-VHS, chances are I’ll give it the time of day.

Even though he’s not even the star of this movie, the same applies double to Tim Thomerson. We’ve long admired his stuff at the ISCFC – from the “Trancers” series, to “Metalstorm”, to “Dollman” (with which this film shares a director and a few cast members) – he’s a former standup who made the move into acting, and has been busy pretty much constantly since the early 80s.

In this one, he’s the police commissioner Farnsworth in the year 2027, trying to coax Alex (Olivier Gruner) out of “retirement”. Now, things will immediately get complicated, and if you want a badly written recap of the film you can just go to Wikipedia, so I’ll try and sum it up quickly for you. Alex is a cop, who is forced by injury to get more and more cybernetic enhancements, and feels a bit ambivalent about this. He meets a group called the Red Army Hammerheads, who realise there’s some cyber-armageddon coming and want to save humanity from robot clones and so on. He quits the police, then becomes a smuggler, then is captured by Farnsworth and sent off to try and track down his former partner, who’s stolen some cybernetic secrets or other.

There’s double-crossing, and discussion about what it means to be human, oh and Alex has a bomb implanted in his heart on the off chance he doesn’t want to help Farnsworth out. You know, normal stuff. The majority of the film, just about, is set in a place called Shang-Lu, which is designed to represent the melting pot that is the future (Japan and the USA have merged, with the USA the weak partner, which tells you the age of this film better than a birth certificate). But you’re left on the back foot a little by the direction – he goes from being a cop, to being a burnout in some remote village, to being an undercover cop in Shang-Lu, and there’s no real sense of transition between the scenes. You have to be on the ball to follow it, that’s for sure.

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The one thing this film absolutely nails is the action scenes, though. Gruner is a former kickboxer and Army special forces guy, and despite this being only his second film, he does what he needs to do pretty well. He was probably never going to be a star on the level of a Schwarzenegger or a Norris or even a JCVD, but he’s a reasonable actor and great at the physical stuff. He’s helped with some surprisingly inventive special effects and stunt work – them running from a gigantic collapsing industrial tower is absolutely real (and must have been pretty terrifying), and a scene where Gruner takes a very short route to the ground floor of a building has been copied in bigger-budget films since.

Along with Thomerson, this film also features some B-movie royalty, in the shape of Brion James, and two people who went on to bigger and better things, Jackie Earle Haley (who was also in “Dollman”) and Thomas Jane. Jane is entirely naked during his performance, even though you only see a back view, should that be your cup of tea.

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Albert Pyun is renowned as one of the worst directors ever, apparently, but I’ve rather enjoyed the films of his I’ve seen. His original idea for this film was to cast a 13-year old Megan Ward as the Olivier Gruner character, but his backers told him he could do whatever he wanted as long as he changed the star to their prefered person. I think he slipped in a few references to this – there are a lot of androgynous names in this, or women with traditionally “male” names. There’s some oddities, like he can’t do transitions worth a damn (Gruner and his sidekick go for a run near the end, and go through jungle, forests and a snowy mountainous region all in the same jog). But otherwise he’s made a tense, action-packed sci-fi thriller whose only flaw really is the plot is a bit too dense.

Nemesis (Albert Pyun, 1992)

So hopefully you’ve already watched it now, because I just wanted to chat about the ending a little. Gruner and his sidekick, having defeated all comers, are on their way to finish off the cyborg baddies. Credits ready to roll, and then as they walk off into the distance we hear a voice saying “shall we kill them now?” and Tim Thomerson replies “why wait?” Even though they’d shot his skin off in one of the more amazing stunts in the film, and then destroyed his robot body, there he was at the end, still alive and kicking. BORING! Why do films feel it’s a cheat to just have a happy ending?

Anyway, that minor criticism aside, this is a fun film, and with three sequels (none of which had any Gruner involvement, apparently), it’s tickled my fancy enough that we’ll be reviewing all four.

Rating: thumbs up