Saturday, August 28, 2010

High Voltage

Remember when I used to review horror movies? I’ve always vacillated between action and horror, but lately, I want all action, all the time. I still watch horror movies, but I rarely feel the need to write about them. Maybe it’s because I tend to feel that horror is gonna be just fine without me to sing its praises on the internet. Trends come and go, but horror always survives, thanks to a devoted fanbase with a never-ending influx of people who have just turned 17 and want to prove how hardcore they are. Action, however, is kind of on the endangered list. Every now and again there’s a random hit like Taken, but kids these days prefer their action movies to be about robots with superpowers, not unshaven men with shoulder holsters. The classic action movie is going the way of the western or the film noir. Rather than being a viable commercial genre, it’s quickly becoming a purely retro phenomenon, an exercise in aesthetics to be consumed solely by nostalgists.

Luckily, I’m not the only one keeping the flame burning. I was recently exposed to the works of Isaac Florentine by fellow action fetishist Outlaw Vern. Florentine is a direct-to-DVD director who is almost single-handedly keeping the meat-and-potatoes American action movie alive. The fact that he is an Israeli who works in a heavily Hong Kong-influenced style and usually shoots his movies in Bulgaria only proves how dire the situation is.

Florentine is a former martial arts instructor who got his start choreographing stunts and directing episodes of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, so this is a dude who knows the best angles at which to film a guy kicking another guy so that he flips end over end and crashes headfirst through a coffee table. This is a very useful skill for an action director to have, but you’d be amazed at how many don’t have it. He shoots clean frames that emphasize movement and causality, so that his action sequences flow logically from one exciting event to the next. This is a decidedly classical approach when compared to contemporary action filmmakers, who prefer to hire highly skilled stuntmen to design and perform an intricate and immaculately timed dance of destruction, and then kick the camera around in front of it like an empty shoebox they found in the street. Florentine also has an excellent grasp of the proper tone for old school action. It’s not too light, not too heavy, and never ironic. He treats his one-dimensional characters with respect and takes their stories seriously, but he also has no delusions of grandeur. He knows he’s making cheesy movies where character development is defined by putting a chair leg through the chest of the guy who killed your partner.

This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed one of Florentine’s movies (The Shepherd: Border Patrol) but for some reason I didn’t mention him in the last one. That’s why it’s kind of a shame that I have to introduce you to him with High Voltage, which, in addition to having a title that looks really eye-catching on a VHS box but doesn’t have anything at all to do with the film contained therein, is nothing special. It’s an early film of his, so he hadn’t quite perfected his chops yet. His later work like U.S. Seals 2 and Special Forces shows a much more confident directorial hand, as well as much more impressive stuntwork. But High Voltage does have its moments.

What we got here is a movie in which TV heartthrob Antonio Sabato, Jr. leads the least badass gang of armed robbers in movie history. We’ve got a pre-Road Trip Amy Smart, who's way too cute to look tough pumping a shotgun, plus the puffed-up frat monkey who played the deputy in Freddy vs. Jason and a couple of nondescript white guys in blue button-ups and khakis. What they do is they attempt to rob a bank, but then they discover that it’s being used as a front for some Vietnamese gangsters, so they team up with the bank manager (who also happens to be the head gangster’s moll) to rip off the loot and make a break for Mexico. The manager is played by Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce, who I’d only ever seen in a Hong Kong flick with the amazing title of And Now You’re Dead. Mostly she’s just the love interest, but she does get one fight scene in what is probably not the least convincing bar set I’ve ever seen. Her kung fu is serviceable at best, but at least she’s kind of cute.

The first half of the movie is kind of boring, but it really picks up after that barfight. Amy Smart’s lame boyfriend gets killed in the crossfire with a gang of bikers (one of whom is played by Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds), so they force a priest (Hit List’s Ken Lerner in a rare non-lawyer role) to marry her and the corpse at gunpoint. Once that happens, things get much more absurd and enjoyable.

This was 1997, so naturally every movie had to have a bunch of colorful Tarantinoesque underworld factions becoming entangled with each other in a series of double-crosses and coincidences, so the climax is all about the Vietnamese gangsters and a vengeful biker (played by Johnny from The Karate Kid) converging at an Arizona motel run by Antonio’s freakishly beefy Sicilian uncle. Then Florentine really gets to let ’er rip with the roundhouse kicks and the machine guns and the people falling over railings. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but at least it doesn’t skimp on the good stuff. And in these days of incompetent action and sissified CGI, sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.

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