Monday, April 14, 2014

Cyber Monday: EXPECT NO MERCY (1995)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a fascinating time for action fans.  While the big screen was dominated by the Fearsome Four (Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme), the video market was a Wild West free-for-all when producers realized the market was healthy enough to sustain direct-to-video action product.  If you could throw a kick in real life, chances were high you could get a 3-picture deal somewhere. This resulted in a rise of new action stars well versed in martial arts including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Loren Avedon, Gary Daniels, Olivier Gruner, and Jeff Wincott.

Two more examples of this phenomenon can be found in Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi, the two leads of today’s film.  The launch of Blanks – a marital artist turned bodyguard turned actor – to a leading action man took many by surprise. One year he was a henchmen or villain (BLOODFIST [1989] and THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS [1991]) and the next year he is suddenly cast as the hero (TALONS OF THE EAGLE [1992]).  If Blanks’ good guy turn and direct-to-video ascent was unexpected, the arrival of his co-star was positively startling.  Jalal Merhi didn’t ease into the action business as much as he just appeared.  One day you just suddenly found yourself staring at a video box with Merhi – a Lebanese jewelry dealer from Canada turned martial artist turned actor – on the cover, declaring him to be an action star.  Hey, it worked for David Heavener.  And besides, Merhi could throw a kick so all was good.

Concurrent to the rise of the direct-to-video action star was another one of Hollywood’s flavor of the month obsessions: virtual reality.  Sure, films like TRON (1982) and BRAINSTORM (1983) had introduced computer controlled worlds to the mainstream audiences, but the sickness didn’t really grab a hold until the first half of the 1990s.  In addition to pissing Stephen King off, Brett Leonard’s THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992) proved that computer created environs were feasible enough for audiences.  Soon the market was flooded with VR titles like ARCADE (1993), GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1993), BRAINSCAN (1994), JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1994), Leonard’s VIRTUOSITY (1995), HACKERS (1995), STRANGE DAYS (1995), and the mainstream nadir DISCLOSURE (1994), which virtually (haha) killed the genre by featuring a virtual Demi Moore stalking Michael Douglas.  Don’t believe me?  Have a look:

As you can see, that is about as technically relevant today as my laserdisc collection. Anyway, the point of all this is you just knew these two ideas – direct-to-video action and virtual reality – were going to eventually bump into each other. Sure enough, they did in EXPECT NO MERCY (1995).

The film opens with a group of commandoes decked out in hi-tech gear performing a hit with military like precision. Okay, so the filmmakers also watched UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992).  Their target is a mafioso looking dude, whose evil is established by him having a naked girl swimming in his pool (“That’s one smooth dude,” coos one of his bodyguards).  Watching all of this unfold safely behind a computer screen is Warbeck (Wolf Larsen), who runs the Virtual Arts Academy.  Under the guise of developing able bodied fighters, the school is actually a front where Warbeck trains his highly skilled assassins to take out high priced murder contracts.  The Feds are onto his scheme, but Warbeck is onto them as evidenced by them fishing out a female undercover agent from the local swamp.  Sensing they need a man’s man for the job, the government contacts agent Justin Vanier (Blanks) and sends him undercover to the academy.  Posing as a fitness instructor (real life foreshadowing!), Vanier is told his contact on the inside is a guy named Eric (Merhi).  Yes, this character is so underwritten that he isn’t even given a last name.

Vanier heads to school and he keeps his cover by – I kid you not – unzipping his jacket and turning his hat backwards.  You’ve fooled them all!  Vanier takes to the VR training really fast, advancing at a rate that will give him 20 years of fighting experience in 2 years.  Of course, I’m not quite sure how shadowboxing imaginary adversaries will prepare you for real life fights.  It would be like Tom saying, “I can beat anybody up because I had the highest score on Mortal Kombat.”  After meeting up with Eric and new ally Vicki (Laurie Holden), Vanier gets a computer document of the illegal activities. Naturally, they get caught and Warbeck has them both put into the virtual reality world to get their asses whooped (“When the computer has their moves, you can dispose of them,” he says). Somehow the greatest fighters in this simulation include a boxer, a ninja, a samurai, a dominatrix and…an evil clown?  Yeah, just go with it.  The men get saved by Vicki just before having their brains fried.  This is also good timing because Warbeck has just sent his men out to assassinate Goldberg, a stoolie he’s been hired to kill who is being protected by the same Federal agents who hired Vanier (I guess the budget only had enough for two speaking agents).  They save the day, but Vicki ends up getting kidnapped so it is back to the Virtual Arts Academy, where everyone must face off and, as expected, Vanier takes on Warbeck in the virtual world (“Expect no mercy,” Warbeck cries).

I don’t normally take review requests, but this one came to me from a kind soul in Canada named Keith.  He used to run an amazing Bruceploitation review site, but that was before this poor child was struck down with a crippling case of Lazyitus. Anyway, he wrote to me telling me how EXPECT NO MERCY was the best film he had ever seen and that I should review it.  The saddest part about this whole thing?  I had a VHS copy sitting on my “too be watched” pile.  Truth be told, if I had watched this back in 1995 I probably would have hated it.  I was stuck in a worship of Hong Kong cinema back then and if it didn’t have Jackie Chan doing death-defying stunts, I wasn’t down.  Watching this today, I enjoyed the picture for what it is.  In addition to being physically fit, Blanks is a very solid martial artist.  His moves are done a bit of a disservice in the virtual reality world but he does get in two good fights at the end, including one against his brother Michael Blanks.  Merhi also gets to show his moves and, as a Tae Kwon Do guy, he fares well onscreen.  Now if only they had given his character a last name. Also decent is German actor Wolf Larsen as the villain.  Well, in the fighting department at least as he is pretty over the top as the villain.  Director Zale Dalen also stages some nice shoot outs and knows that bigger is better when it comes to explosions (watch for one bit where Merhi’s double gets singed as he is engulfed in flames while jumping out of an exploding house).

The sci-fi angle is probably going to elicit laughs today.  Hell, it probably did back in the day when it was brand new.  Their concept for the virtual world is to have the fighters blown out on the white balance and facing off in front of computer generated worlds.  Now I personally love the simplistic look of these computer made maps (they take me back to the old days of playing flight simulator), but it still looks super cheap.  Also, the film commits the ultimate virtual reality sin by not having a point-of-view scene where the lead sneaks around in the virtual reality world.  Every VR related movie needs to have that bit where we get the POV of the character and then a big, clunky computer generated hand comes into the frame to grab something.  To have that missing is a big no-no.  I’m also not so sure about Dalen’s choices for what constitutes “scary” in the virtual reality world.  I can understand a ninja or samurai, but an evil clown? Even worse, it is accompanied by a bunch of horn honking sound effects that make it laughably bad.  It is the second goofiest VR creation I have seen after virtual Demi Moore.

All that said EXPECT NO MERCY is a fun way to kill 90 minutes.  It takes you back to a time when every action movie wasn’t so damn serious.  Damn, was 1995 really almost 20 years ago?  Anyway, now I’m in the mood for some more Billy Blanks sci-fi.  I guess I could watch TC 2000 (1993) if I had a copy…oh, there it is sitting right there.  Or I can watch VIRTUAL COMBAT (1995) with Don “The Dragon” Wilson since I have that too.  Thanks, Keith!

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