Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mercenaries (2014)

Evil Eastern European warlord Ulrika (Brigitte Nielsen) kidnaps the US president’s daughter Elise (Tiffany Panhilason) who is touring war-torn Kazakhstan on a humanitarian whatsit. Ulrika wants the US to make her president/queen/whatever of Kazakhstan, or else the president’s daughter dies.

Her intelligence suggests to CIA boss Mona (Cynthia Rothrock) that a rescue mission performed by female operatives will be much more likely to succeed, because Ulrika has a violent hatred of all men except for her main henchie Grigori (Tim Abell). Unfortunately, there’s nobody of the female persuasion on the actual government payroll available on this short notice, so Mona makes do with a quartet of highly talented women she kidnaps out of various prisons. Together, former special forces officer Clay (Zoë Bell), sniper Kat (Kristanna Loken), explosives expert Mei-Lin (Nicole Bilderback), and former CIA killer Raven (Vivica A. Fox) should be able to somehow infiltrate Ulrika’s compound and save the girl.

Of course, once on the ground, the quartet soon find themselves in a situation quickly getting out of control in a way that involves gunfire and explosions.

Production company The Asylum (and some parts of the Internet) are trying to sell Mercenaries as some kind of female Expendables clone, but the absence of thick, rotten smelling hunks of smug irony, and the fact that at best half of the actresses involved could be called female action movies veterans suggests that this is something rather more entertaining – a female dominated variation on the age-old Dirty Dozen formula.

But if The Asylum wants me to compare the film to the Expendables, I might as well oblige them in so far as to praise it for not carting out veteran actors with often bad luck in their careers for us to gawk and laugh at like the Expendables movies do, but for rather preferring an approach that shows working actresses mostly in the difficult middle-years of their careers (cue an annoyed sigh in the direction of a film industry that wants to have fuck all to do with middle-age actresses, however great they might be when working in a specific genre) doing the low budget action dance the Van Dammes and Lundgrens of the world know quite well, with a degree of dignity and personality you get when you’re not part of a freak show.

Obviously, Mercenaries’ less irony-laden approach to action film is much closer to my heart than that of the Expendables, as is its utter lack of shame for being the low budget action piece it is. We get all the staples of this particular genre: the idiotic plan of the scenery chewing bad guys (Brigitte really goes all out on the overacting, to highly entertaining effect), the just as dumb official reaction to it, the plot that’s an excuse to string cheap action sequences that defy the laws of physics as much as the budget allows and a cornucopia of bad one-liners and worse jokes that – at least in this particular case – somehow manage to end up more charming than annoying.

This sort of thing does fail as often as it succeeds but I found myself enjoying nearly every minute of Mercenaries. Not just because it avoids the typical low budget action movie problems of sluggish boredom and a lack of actual action but because Christopher Ray’s film seems to relish what it is and tries its hardest to transmit this relish to its audience, with a complete lack of shame making up for the script’s general weakness (though I like how it mostly lets its female badasses be female badasses without using the tired old “a guh, a guh, a girl!!!” nonsense). Enthusiasm and a willingness to escalate to stuff like a final punch-out in a plane with an open transport hatch make up for the actually not all that great action choreography. I also really appreciate how little leering the film does at the actresses, with exactly one inappropriate moment, and here, too, just goes with the typical action movie clichés for any given action film’s heroes.

Add to this a willingness to entertain even if your budget is the catering costs of The Expendables, Brigitte’s enthusiasm at chewing the scenery, Bell (who deserves many more lead roles in action films, given how generally likeable, competent at the acting part of acting, and awesome at the physical stuff she is), Loken, Fox, and Bilderback using four very different kinds of swagger, and some perfectly decent pacing, and you’ll have yourself another Asylum production that shows a company far from the disinterested vibe of its early years, still making what most people will consider crap, but now quite often crap with its own kind of dignity.

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