Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Firecracker (1981)

Martial arts expert Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) travels to the Philippines to find out what happened to her sister Bonnie who suddenly disappeared without a trace.

The guys working in the bar over which Bonnie lived point Susanne in the direction of drug kingpin Erik (Ken Metcalfe), of whose connection with Bonnie's disappearance they seem quite sure. Susanne agrees with the boys, and decides to get close to Erik's operation by charming and hitting her way into the heart of his main henchman, white boy afro and 'stache wearing martial artist Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton). Because that's not enough for a movie plot, there's also a sub-plot about Erik trying to outwit his drug middle-man Grip (Vic Diaz), and another one concerning an undercover police woman (Chanda Romero) who is quite under cover with Erik. Plus some stuff about Erik's hobby, the Arena of Death (guess what happens there), but all these threads are so loosely connected they only belong together because they just happen to include the same characters as the other plot lines.

So, if you're looking for a tightly constructed thriller, or even just a film that makes a lot of sense, Cirio H. Santiago's Firecracker will probably disappoint you. If you, on the other hand, are going into the movie to enjoy a series of pretty disconnected, yet increasingly strange and awesome, scenes of grindhouse imagination, you've come to the right place.

Firecracker does, as you'd expect from a Filipino movie made for the international market, feature a lot of mildly okay fight scenes, choreographed with more imagination than the fights in a comparable US film would be, but looking a bit limp if compared to films from Hong Kong or Japan. Kesner isn't exactly a great screen martial artist, but she's enthusiastic enough and does a pretty good glare; she's also from time to time doubled by a guy wearing a really bad wig, which is always a plus.

On the acting side the film is all over the place. Kesner is at times grindhouse movie good - she does "angry and going to do violence to you" quite well - at other times nearly comically wooden. The scenes between her and Darby Hinton that are supposed to suggest their feelings of mutual attraction are so horrible they can't help but be amusing; it's not too often one has the possibility to study the mating habits of two pieces of wood. Good old Vic Diaz, on the other hand, has fun stealing every scene he's in by good old fashioned scenery-chewing of the kind that always makes me want to applaud and throw my underwear at the screen.

It's not just my underwear that's flying in the film, though. Once Santiago has decided that a female fighter going about her vengeance work earnestly and fully clothed isn't interesting enough, he inserts two totally random would-be rapists who chase Susanne (who has suddenly lost her badassitude for five minutes - I suspect nudonite, kryptonite's lesser brother) around a bit, only pausing to gorily dispatch of a helpful cop. During that chase, Susanne just happens to lose one piece of clothing after the other, until she ends the whole thing (suddenly regaining her power of fight) in one of those always classy moments of bare-breasted fighting. That whole scene is so lazily written and so randomly sleazy, the only possible reactions one could have are either outrage or hysterical giggling; as is my morally decrepit wont, I giggled.

I giggled even more during Firecracker's other big sleaze scene, the sex scene between Kesner and Hinton. That scene may begin with a depressed Kesner saying "hold me" to the man least likely to react appropriately (he is clearly a sociopath, after all), but then decides tragic romance is when two people slowly cut each other's clothes off with knives. Needless to say, it's one of the great love scenes in cinema, made even better by the fact that Kesner will soon enough poke Hinton's eyes out with a pair of sticks.

Nearly as awesome as these two scenes is the music by Nonong Buencamino. Buencamino's minimalist disco noise funk wouldn't be out of place on a No Wave compilation, and provides a film full of weird moments with another layer of strangeness.

Firecracker is a film that shows all the best elements of its director/writer/producer Cirio H. Santiago's work. It has all the mediocre fighting, the sloppiness, the off-key acting, and the ridiculously awesome or awesomely ridiculous ideas that can make Santiago's movies so much fun without the boredom that destroys some of them.


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