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Epicenter
(2000)
 

Director: Richard Pepin                          
Cast:
Traci Lords, Gary Daniels, Katie Stewart


Even if you don't like the particular action vehicles that PM Entertainment makes, you at least have to respect them for their constant going all-out, and not knowing what the word "excess" means. Other B movie studios may be content in just breaking one or two panes of broken glass Unfortunately for us, Daniels decided to put on some glasses and give a "method" performancein one of their movies; in a PM movie, you typically get enough broken glass to put one glazier in comfortable retirement, and you can be sure that Epicenter indirectly sent one businessman to live in Florida. Also, your typical B movie usually wrecks one or two cars, older vehicles that have seen better days to be more exact, and not damaging them enough so that Mr. Goodwrench afterwards gives them a gun and tell them to take their wheels behind the barn. In any PM movie - including Epicenter - you'll see brand new cars and vans flipped over, blown up, and torn apart in ways you never though a vehicle could be creamed. 

Some may categorize PM Entertainment movies as excuses for the most gratuitous violence and action around. This I object to; though these movies may be filled with excess of those onscreen activities, you can also see that the filmmakers are striving for originality, to create original scenes never previously seen in cinematic history that will make the audience laugh yet think. Take one sequence in the middle of Epicenter, for example: the gun battle in the restaurant. Admittedly, even though the gun battle in itself is a fine piece of craftsmanship, with automatic weapons ablaze and people running around dodging bullets (if they are not one of the victims that get bullets in their chest), that in itself does not sound particularly original. But what makes this sequence different and original is that all of this activity is taking place while a major earthquake is taking place. You must admit that the sight of people shooting AK-47s and other major pieces of hardware, while dodging large chunks of falling debris as well as trying to avoid getting swallowed by big cracks forming in the floor, is nothing like you've ever seen before.

After recent disappointments like The Sender and Road Ends, PM Entertainment now seems to be getting on the right track again with Epicenter(*), which strives to get back to those days of over-the-top excess that made crazy yet sheer entertaining movies like The Silencers. Though the action sequences this time around "Al, where are Bud and Kelly?" aren't always put together so smoothly as in previous movies, they do still have those necessary ingredients for satisfaction, namely excess, large scale, and great amounts of destruction. They do indeed entertain. Unfortunately, the material that surrounds these action sequences leaves a lot to be desired. Though I admit that B movies aren't exactly filled with great acting, characters, and plot development, they usually have just enough to keep the whole package moving. Yet in those areas this time around, things are screwed up so badly it's quite amazing that apparently nobody stopped and realized how bad these things were and tried to save them.

We start off in San Francisco, a change of pace from PM's usual setting of L.A. (don't worry, though - the story moves to L.A. about halfway through.) At the generically named Global Technology computer lab, computer expert Nick (played by martial arts actor Gary Daniels!) comes to work one day, and executes an ingenious plan of stealing the lab's stealth fighter technology, so he can later that day sell it to the Russians for a whopping amount, as well as get revenge against his employers for reasons he's keeping to his own. What he and the Russians don't know is that the FBI has knowledge of this trade, and during the transaction, FBI agent Amanda (former porn star Traci Lords - who elegantly tries to distance herself from her past and herald herself as a serious actress by having herself billed as Traci Elizabeth Lords) swoops down and attempts to bust everyone. 

Despite her efforts (read: a very long multiple car chase through Chinatown that leads to an insane race down S.F. steep hills, involving an out-of-control street trolley and a number of cars that get destroyed), she only gets her hands on Nick, and the Russians get away. Though the Russians Now *that's* a way to die! don't flee the country; they still want to get their hands on Nick, so they can force him to give up a computer chip that can decode the encrypted data. They are close behind when Amanda subsequently escorts Nick to L.A. (told ya!) to be processed by the FBI headquarters there. But just before they can get their hands on him, a massive earthquake hits the Los Angeles area, bringing massive destruction and chaos. So now not only does Amanda have to try to bring Nick in through the rubble, but must protect her prisoner from the pursuing Russian mafia.

This is a call for even more gratuitous action, and as long as it's well done, I don't mind and I don't think many others will. Though among all of us action fans, I also don't think that there would be many that would like a little substance between those action sequences - after all, you can't have a movie that's completely wall-to-wall action, because it would be boring. And what's between the action sequences in Epicenter is only marginally better than boring. First, the characters - specifically, the bad guys. They are some of the blandest, most unexciting villains to be in an action movie for some time. These Russian mobsters have names like "Dmitri", "Tanya", "Ivan", and other equally stereotyped names. (Why not, for once, have a Russian villain with a name like Balacanirinioff, or something else equally hard to spell?) The leader of these mobsters spends almost all his limited screen time relaying his instructions from Mexico, and only gets into the action in the final few minutes after being missing from the movie for about an hour. The two mobsters that are actually on Nick and Amanda's trail only appear when the movie feels like giving them a short appearance, and nothing that they do or say is exceptional in any way. In fact, the only villain who makes any impression is one of the lesser henchmen seen early in the movie, only because he has a few funny lines and his death is quite humorous (in a sick way); this actor dies so well, I hope he is given the chance to die in even bigger and better ways in the future.

Though Daniels' and Lords' characters aren't as abysmally written as their adversaries, they still have some major weaknesses to them. The obvious shortcoming to Nick is that he is essentially a traitor to his country, so why on earth should we give The Who gives a private concert for the executives at Acme Corporation a flip about him? Even if his stealing didn't involve espionage, it's hard to sympathize with a guy who keeps blurting out irritating  statements like "I want my tidy little profit!" Nick is the king of jerks, who exudes selfishness and not much else. Though Daniels doesn't hide his accent, and utters the occasional "bloody" and "blimey", we have to assume that he is from England, because the movie stubbornly refuses to let us know anything more about him. (By the way, aside from marquee value, why was Daniels cast in a role that gives him only two seconds to do martial arts?) 

What's really embarrassing for Daniels is that Lords actually manages to outact him. Lords' performance actually flirts with conviction and competence at times, and she overall acts much better than just a few years ago. Still, she's hilariously bad at times, giving bland looks when she is literally hanging from her fingertips, or puffing up her face when she gets huffy. In fairness, her role is just as ineptly written as Daniels'; for example, we suddenly learn that her character is married halfway through the movie. (Well, this sudden inclusion does fortunately prevent her and Nick stereotypically find themselves falling in love.) Also, there is a painfully bad subplot about the bad relationship she has with her daughter that is cliché city all the way. In fact, it's just an excuse for devoting a large plot of the movie to showing her daughter struggling in the ruins of the earthquake at the other end of the city. Every scene involving her daughter could be completely and immediately cut out of the movie with no consequences to the rest of the movie. It's only there to extend the movie's running time.

So when the movie focuses in on the characters, it's pretty much a suckfest. Thank goodness that there's enough material that makes the movie - well, maybe not entertaining enough to make you actively seek it out, but making it  watchable-on-a-lazy-Sunday way, which is at least better than being simply  unwatchable. The movie is always pleasing to the eye, thanks to yet another example of the professional lighting and cinematography found in PM movies, that make them look more expensive than they really are. What really makes this movie look expensive, though, are the various effects. Though the earthquake sequence has a few signs of budget constraints "Hey Ms. Lords, how come you seem to know so much about handcuffs?" (it's clear that the editor is moving around the frames of the film to simulate the tremors, for one thing), overall it's really well done. Using a combination of elaborate models, computer graphics, and raining down large amount of debris on sets, this is one of the most convincing earthquake sequences I've seen in a movie. And it doesn't stop there; after the earthquake, the characters wander through the wreckage, and the wrecked buildings they go through are simulated by huge sets (a shopping mall, a subway station, etc.) covered with tons of wreckage and debris. For the life of me, I don't know how they pulled this off with a limited budget, but there it is.

There are also a few non-earthquake related action sequences that, while not quite up to this usual PM standards, do provide some excitement as well as some (intended) humor. The highlight action sequence is the previously mentioned race through Chinatown (with no parade in sight - the first Chinatown chase not to have one!) which leads to a struggle around an out-of-control street trolley. Though this sequence does have some pretty poor editing that leaves a few hiccups where a quick action is obviously missing, it's still quite a hoot to watch. When you think the sequence is ending, it just keeps going and going, while death and destruction are happening all around the trolley. The other action sequences have some novelty to them, such as trapping the characters in a basement that's flooding quickly. There actually aren't that many action sequences in total, though each one manages to be quirky or genuinely entertaining enough, and pick you up after suffering through those horrible characters and performances. As I mentioned before, those problems don't make the movie worth actively seeking out, but there is enough merit in the movie to make it worth your while when you want to watch something, yet you're behind on your reading - you can turn the pages while the characters are showcased, and put down the book whenever some action starts. You won't have missed anything important, believe me.
 


UPDATE: Larry Sternshein sent me this information:

"Hey, great site. I thought you would like to know what PM Entertainment did for their release of Epicenter. You mentioned the trolly sequence and how, 'this sequence does have some pretty poor editing that leaves a few hiccups where a quick action is obviously missing.'

"Well, the reason the editing has hiccups is they are trying to cover up Eddie Murphy. In case you didn't know, they used direct footage already directed for Eddie Murphy's Metro. I'm telling you, rent Metro and watch the trolly car sequence and you'll see they ripped off footage. This isn't the only time I've seen films use stock footage from bigger budget movies. The film Octopus uses footage from Deep Rising and also some hostage boat movie uses the ship that blows up in Deep Rising as well."

Thanks for the explanation, Larry. I had known about low-budget films using stock footage from big budget movies before (read my review of Tycus), but having long given up on Eddie Murphy, I had not seen Metro. Funny thing you should mention a hostage boat movie using footage from Deep Rising, since I am reviewing such a movie - Chain Of Command - in a few weeks.
 


UPDATE 2: "Brudatax" sent this along:

"Epicenter also uses footage from Speed (Elevator-sequence) And most likely Money Train was used for the Metro-sequence."

From what I recall, the Metro crash sequence seemed to use footage from The Silencers, though I'd have to watch all three movies again to be sure.


* That is, if they are still around. There is evidence to suggest that recently the company was dissolved and its library sold off.

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See also: Barefoot Gen, City On Fire, Fast Money

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