Youtube Film Club: Expect To Die (1997)

We here at the ISCFC are long-time haters of Jalal Merhi. He’s perhaps the worst actor to ever headline multiple movies – he made his money from his family’s jewel business and plowed all that cash into making his own starring vehicles, always producing them, and often directing too. It’s really hard to over-emphasise just how bad an actor he is, though, seemingly unable to portray any emotion or deliver a line in anything other than a monotone.

But, he knows how to surround himself with actors we like, and he’s at least competent as a director, so here we are, on our…tenth?…Merhi review. Today’s movie features David “not the British character actor” Bradley and Evan Lurie, both high-quality B-movie veterans, and tells a story of virtual reality, managing to get the future weirdly right (there’s a VR game coming out this year for the Oculus, PS4 and Steam called “I Expect You To Die”, coincidentally enough). Apart from the thing about VR killing people, I guess? Also, it’s not to be confused with the previous year’s “Expect No Mercy”, also about virtual reality being too powerful, also with people fighting inside it, also starring Merhi.

 

Things kick off with a military test of virtual reality software, where a soldier dies because the VR was too real – a solid standard 90s plot device. The guy who invented the software is Dr Vincent MacIntyre (Bradley, completely bizarrely miscast) and he’s furious that the military want to cancel the research; and he’s even furiouser that his company kicks him out because he’s a loose cannon. This is tied into his dead father, who was a Colonel who was framed for murder by the military establishment? This completely undeveloped plot thread makes “Expect To Die” feel like the sequel to an unmade movie.

Luckily, both the Army and the software company are okay with MacIntyre selling the software to a criminal, I think?

 

Hold on, I need to try and establish how confusing this whole thing is. There’s an illegal arms sale in a warehouse, where all these wealthy bad guys have women on their arms as nothing more than set dressing (Merhi is among the most sexist of the 90s action crowd, no mean feat), but one of the bad guys wants to pay for the merch with computer disks, which has “Expect To Die” on it. This is the game created by MacIntyre’s old company, but is a normal “Mortal Kombat” style fighting game – we learn this thanks to Merhi’s girlfriend, a computer programmer / plot device (she gets kidnapped later on). The virtual reality “game”, with the same name, is being developed in secret for some criminals, but why is either never mentioned or I wasn’t paying attention for those five seconds. How much profit is there in a game which just straight-up kills you?

 

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Merhi’s female partner gets shot (while in her underwear, for the flimsiest of reasons) so he needs a new partner. Evan Lurie! There’s a bunch of references to Lurie getting shot when they were partners before, which again leads me to believe this script is the sequel to something which never got made? Anyway, Lurie tries his best with the dead weight of his co-star but it’s tough at times.

What’s most important to note about this movie is it’s a complete ego trip for Jalal Merhi. He’s got a gorgeous female partner but he’s devoted to his wife; he’s also the best martial artist in the world. Want to know how I know this? Evan Lurie, a talented screen fighter, only has one fight scene, and David Bradley, who was the star of an entire action franchise, doesn’t fight at all. Can’t distract from the star! Merhi kicks ass all over the place, of course, and even shows off how buff he is in the VR bootcamp program he’s plugged into, but even then, there’s a weirdly small amount of martial arts in a movie with three martial arts stars as the top billed actors, especially as the plot seems designed to have fighting in it?

 

This is a really bad one. Even though it’s got two great action stars in it, it uses them terribly – Lurie really ought to have had a few starring roles, not second banana to a charisma-vacuum like Merhi; and it’s interesting seeing Bradley as the bad guy, even if he’s given a really weird character. But everything else just feels like it was thrown together at the last minute, mostly at random. The number of dropped plot threads might be, in the hands of anyone with a modicum of skill, a joke in and of themselves, but here you’re pretty certain they just didn’t consider why anyone would care about anything other than Merhi being the ultimate badass.

Definitely one of the more confusing 90s action B-movies. Worth watching for that purpose? I don’t know. Merhi’s previous directorial effort, “Operation Golden Phoenix”, was quite good, and “Expect No Mercy” was at least fun and didn’t take itself too seriously. This is po-faced, not very exciting and probably not worth your time (even if it is available for free).

Rating: thumbs down

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Youtube Film Club: Expect No Mercy (1995)

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In the mind of any reasonable viewer, “Expect No Mercy” should inspire dread. Starring Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi, two of the least charismatic, least able actors to ever headline multiple movies, and it’s based around the concept of virtual reality so you know it’s going to be packed with 90s CGI effects. But, and I was as surprised as you, it’s very enjoyable! Join me, let’s talk trashy martial arts movies and have some fun.

There’s a surprisingly fun opening scene when a group of black-clad guys wipe out the home of what looks like a drug dealer. Certainly some bad guys, so it’s quite surprising later on when we discover that these “heroes” are actually the villains. Okay, moderately surprising. One of the villains, watching a guy get into his sports car with a beautiful woman, admiringly notes “that is one smooth dude”, a line I wish I could use without irony in 2016. How else will people know they’re smooth dudes? But most credit must go to the leader of the assassination squad, Damian, played by Anthony DeLongis. He’s one of the great “That Guy” actors, and I know him best from two first-rate performances as different characters on “Highlander: The Series” (but he’s been in everything) – he shows here that he deserved a much better career, playing the evil villain part with just the right amount of over-the-top-ness.

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Anyway, the plot, such as it is, revolves around Federal agent Justin Vanier (Blanks), who’s sent undercover at the Virtual Arts Academy, an extraordinarily well-funded school for teaching people martial arts using virtual reality headsets. Apparently, you can compress decades of fight training into just two years with their technology! There’s a guy on the inside – Eric (Merhi), one of the instructors; and Eric sort of has a thing going with one of the other instructors, Vicki (Laurie Holden, aka Andrea from “The Walking Dead”). Remember this fact. She’s an instructor, at a martial arts academy.

 

The VR machine goes up to a maximum of level 5, where the virtual opponents do double the normal damage, and of course Justin defeats level 5 on his first try because this movie is in a hurry to get to the good stuff. Thanks to Eric’s tech skills, they discover all about the secret assassinations the school has been carrying out, and (weirdly quickly, when you think about it) the head of the school, Warbeck (Wolf Larson) discovers their discovery. So it’s them, first trying to escape from Warbeck, then trying to stop the next assassination his people are about to carry out.

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Simple, and very effective. From our lofty future vantage point, the graphics will give you many laughs in the first half – the “virtual lecture” given by Eric and Vicki, which could very easily have just been given in a normal classroom, is a particular highlight. And there’s even some relatively clever prediction of the future, as Warbeck loudly exclaims that the future is information, and if he controls that, he controls the world. He should have just set up a search engine and a social media site, he needn’t have worried about the crime stuff.

 

Towards the end, the VR rules are thrown out of the window because…er…well, I’m sure it’s important. The villain has a very long monologue about how the Government is bad, and Billy Blanks gets to say the second-greatest line immediately after killing someone with a steam-pipe ever (I’ll leave you to discover what that line is).

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It’s just action, action, action. Director Zale Dalen had lots of TV credits to his name and not many movies, but knew the strengths of his stars and steered into them (hint: it’s not acting). As well as fighting all the wacky bad guys in VR, there’s wave after wave of trainee assassins to contend with, and both Blanks and Merhi spend over half their time on screen kicking ass. You do begin to wonder why no-one in this enormous base has a gun, but that’s small potatoes. Writer J Stephen Maunder is a Merhi regular, and is sure to give his employer (Merhi produced this) plenty of good stuff to do.

 

A few casting bits of trivia make this movie a little more explicable. Oliver Gruner was supposed to be in the Billy Blanks role, but pulled out right before filming started, leaving Blanks the last minute substitute (to be fair, he could have had ten years to prepare, it wouldn’t have made him a better actor). And the Warbeck role was going to be Gary Daniels, a superb martial artist and decent actor; but the distributors wanted an American in the role I guess, so Wolf Larson got it. He’s cool as hell, by the way, and has a great time overacting his part to the max.

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If you have any love in your heart for B-movies, then you’ll love this. It’s simple, direct, cheesy, filled with one-liners delivered terribly by Billy Blanks, lots of fun, lots of action, and races along. You won’t regret it.

 

But there’s one thing which grates really badly, and that’s Merhi’s treatment of women. After watching the “Tiger Claws” series of movies, where he does all the work and legit world champion martial artist Cynthia Rothrock is mostly just along for the ride, this is pretty obvious, but it’s so painfully apparent here that it needs commenting on. When our heroes escape and go to stop the assassination, the first thing Eric says to Vicki is “stay here”, leaving her crouched with a worried expression on her face while the men do all the fighting. Yes, the same woman who’s an instructor at a martial arts academy! Then, she gets kidnapped and taken back to the base, where she’s hung off the side of a building by a rope; if you watch the movie, you can see the surface she’s up against is rough, with lots of areas to get purchase. What I’m saying is, a trained martial artist should be able to climb up the side of the building easily (heck, I’d give it a go, and I’m fat and middle-aged), but because Merhi cannot conceive of women being able to do anything, leaves her there to be rescued, roughly equivalent to silent movies where the damsel in distress was tied to train tracks.

Her revenge was having a decent career

Her revenge was having a decent career

So, appalling sexism aside…

 

Rating: thumbs up

 

PS – Looking up J Stephen Maunder, I noticed a movie which is due out this year, apparently, called “Beyond The Game”. Look at the cast list, like a B-movie “Expendables” – Armand Assante; Chamillionaire; Mark Dacascos; Olivier Gruner; Kelly Hu; Matthias Hues; Martin Kove; Lorenzo Lamas; Jason Scott Lee; Bai Ling; Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister; Kristanna Loken; Michael Madsen; Costas Mandylor; Eric Roberts; Cynthia Rothrock; Dan Severn; Kevin Sorbo; Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa; Oleg Taktarov; Brian Thompson; Tony Todd; Danny Trejo; Casper Van Dien; Michael Jai White; Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson; and Billy Zane. What a list! The trailer is available online and is every bit as amazing as you’d expect, but let’s say you’re a movie reviewer wanting to help promote it?

 

The company’s website is defunct, their Facebook page hasn’t been used in 3 years, they’ve got almost the same name as a Canadian documentary group, which is confusing, and none of the people involved in the movie appear to use social media. It’s the same company that made “Blizhniy Boy” in 2008, which is as yet unreleased in English (I think there’s a Russian version somewhere, even though it’s got an English-speaking cast), and has the weird feeling of being a money-laundering operation or other complicated scam. Why make 3 movies, promote them and never release them?

Sword Art Online (2012)

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I wasn’t particularly interested in watching this series as the premise seemed really hokey. However, I found it on Netflix and at a loose end, thought I’d give it ago. Turns out that watching a cartoon about players trapped in World of Warcraft was quite entertaining. Who knew!

The basic conceit is that in the near future, people have virtual reality “Nerve Gear” to plug into their computers which hijacks their nerve impulses and allows them to play MMOs as if they were really there. The new game, Sword Art Online, has just been released and uses a new interface unit that you have to buy specifically for it.

That in of itself is probably fairly realistic. Given the prevalence of online gaming and the direction technology is going (Google Glass, Kinect), we will see an early prototype of this kind of thing within the next 10 years. Hell, early attempts at Virtual Reality in the ‘90s were only abandoned because the money was in home gaming and that wasn’t a million miles away from what SAO is suggesting.

SAO has been released and thousands of people rush out and buy it, get it home and log in. Obviously, in the future, games are completed before released and don’t require a 10 GB patch just to play it…

Once people have been logged in and playing around, there is an in-game announcement which states that no one can leave the game until the 100th floor is cleared and that anyone who dies in the game, dies in real life.

Obviously, everyone then immediately tries to log out but the option is missing from their display. They can’t physically remove their own gear as their nerve impulses from their brain are rerouted by the Nerve Gear. They are trapped!

Worse, the Nerve Gear to use the game, designed to kill anyone who dies in the game, will also kill anyone who has their unit removed in real life (cue: lots of people disappearing  in game because of well intending family members and medics).

"The future, as designed by Blizzard."

“The future, as designed by Blizzard.”

Lastly, everyone’s in-game avatar is forced to reflect their real life self image (and gender).

And so begins the story… this is all one big set up to effectively tell a story about an online roleplaying game: it has all the hallmarks, including guilds (and the subsequent guild politics), grouping together to fight bosses, levelling, loot (and the politics of who gets what) and all the other things you associate with playing these games (no one is cussed out for being a “shit healer” however).

The main protagonist is Kirito (the handle of Kazuto Kirigaya), a massive gamer nerd and beta tester on SAO. Consequently, he knows quite a bit about the game from beta test and quickly advances in the game.

The series follows Kirito around the game world in different adventures. He normally works alone (exploiting his knowledge of the game by himself) but occasionally teams with others.

I’ve actually played MMOs with people like Kirito: the sort of person who plays at their own rate, doesn’t really socialise and apparently just wants to be involved in the thing that everyone else is involved in. I personally find Kirito-type players to be strange: why play an online social game to be antisocial?

One of the reasons why I like watching animé series, is that they go into detail about things Western animations don’t bother with. Here, the show explores the psychology of people trapped in a deadly game. There is a community and people seem to settle into a semblance of virtual society.

It is quite interesting that as soon as their actual life is on the line, they lose interest in fighting. And that people still find a way to screw one another over: yes, even in a game where there are clearly defined good guys (players) and bad guys (computer generated enemies) with a definitive goal to free themselves, the human players still find a way to exploit the game mechanics to the detriment of one another.

Kirito is quite good as a protagonist. He’s interesting and not a bad guy, just a bit selfish. He does get involved with other people and that’s when the show starts to get better. The politics of grouping and guilding, while obviously dramaticised here, is still worth showing. It’s his relationship with some of the other players which are quite endearing and through that, makes Kirito a much more relatable character. By the end of the series, I had grown quite fond of Kirito and his friends.

The game world itself is quite cleverly created. It doesn’t have any magic in it for two reasons, the first, to make life more deadly and two, so that a person’s talent with a blade (and timing in the use of their powers) is paramount. Because it is virtual reality, the players are genuinely learning to sword fight. It’s a cool idea and I can imagine people actually wanting to play it.

Elsa couldn't be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Elsa couldn’t be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Consequently, the battles are big focus of the show and they are very well done. Obviously the animation is quite a bit better than what we are used to in current MMOs but it does evoke the feeling that they are in a complex, futuristic game but a believable one.

There is a major issue with the narrative in SAO. The story takes a random turn and I really didn’t like it. It comes right out of left field and I think the reason why I don’t like it, is because it offends my Western sense of narrative. However, the story doesn’t actually end there and goes off in another tangent (almost like half way through, they are told they have more episodes, so they tack on second storyline) but it is all tied together in the end with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess there is a payoff to the random choice in the story. Maybe?

Beyond that, the show doesn’t really stand out. The primary selling point is its main conceit. If you have played MMOs, you’ll get it and I think you’ll enjoy it. If not, the animation isn’t particularly exceptionally, nor is the plot or anything else about it. It lives and dies by the sword art online.

TL:DR “Sword Art Online is an animé about people stuck in the Matrix (if the Matrix was made by Blizzard). While entertaining, the only thing which makes it stand out is its conceit. If you don’t like that, give it a miss.”