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The Third Society
(2001)
 

Director: J. A. Steel                           
Cast:
Jacquelyn A. Ruffner, Russell Vann Brown, Sonya Eddy


Sometimes the only way that you are going to obtain your dream is if you do everything by yourself. Take the case of Jacquelyn A. Ruffner (a.k.a. J.A. Steel), the founder of Warrior Entertainment, who was kind enough to send The Unknown Movies a screener and press package for her directorial debut The Third Society. A former production assistant skilled Jacquelyn Ruffner makes an homage to "The Great Train Robbery"at Muay Thai kickboxing and marksmanship, she found it extremely difficult to convince any studio executives to accept her script as it was; even after making several changes to try and accommodate their wishes, they objected to trivial details such as the ethnicity and/or sex of several of the script's characters. Frustrated, she finally decided to take the plunge and make the movie herself, not only by digging into her own pockets in order to put up most of the budget, but working on the movie further than just writing the screenplay, acting in and directing the nine day shoot, and then  subsequently editing the movie herself.

Now typically, when a movie review's first paragraph goes into telling of the rough time the filmmaker had in finding backing for his or her project, and that the filmmaker subsequently found he or she had to do it all herself, the inevitable following paragraph that the critic writes is always in the vein of, "The filmmaker was right all along, it's great, thank God s/he didn't compromise their vision, and oh what a breath of fresh air it is in a sea of Hollywood garbage." Well, with The Third Society, we finally have an exception to that rule. To put it bluntly, it's not a great film. Well, it is a pretty good movie? Uh... no. Well, is it a miss, but one that shows promise? Um... oh dear. I'm having a hard time trying to find something nice to say about the end results. Well, here is one good thing I can say about it: While there have been countless people over the years who have vowed to make a movie one way or the other, Ruffner is one of the few who actually took the bull by the horns and completed her movie. Not a good movie, but a movie all the same.

There is another positive thing I can say about this movie - while hundreds of other ultra-independent filmmakers have scrimped and saved in order to make either a cynical and depressing drama or a wisecracking comedy filled with young adults making easy pop culture references for the festival circuit, Ruffner is one of the few filmmakers in this category who actually made an action movie. (Technically, it's an action movie, but I'll get into that later.) An action movie with a plot that has elements action fans will recognize from a number of other action movies, but an action movie all the same. Ruffner plays Alexandra Cassandra Jones, a hard-edged Los Angeles policewoman. Somewhere in Asia twenty five years earlier, when she was just a nine year-old child, she saw both of her parents gunned down by Dragon, a big-time Asian drug lord. Apparently, in whatever country this took place (the production notes say Hong Kong, though I don't recall the movie saying this or any other location), there are laws against children testifying, because (apparently) Dragon is never arrested and brought to trial. Since Jones' parents apparently were U.S. government agents, the U.S. government then puts Jones and her sister Erica into hiding in Thailand - an odd choice for two American children, especially when you consider the strong possibility that a major drug lord like Dragon would have operations in Thailand.

Anyway, Jones (apparently) stays in Thailand well into becoming an adult, and (apparently) learns Muay Thai kickboxing along the way, though all that we see of her training consists only of her jogging, bathing in mountain streams, and making kicking motions towards trees in the jungle. She eventually goes back to the You don't mess with Sonya Eddy!U.S., where she is hired by the L.A.P.D. (apparently) on the basis of a phone call out of the blue. Once a cop, she (apparently) makes a conscious decision to strike back at Dragon. In a sequence equally confusing as the ones preceding it, she (apparently) makes a successful raid one of Dragon's L.A. drug operations all by herself. Sounds impressive, but the way it's depicted, this drug operation was (apparently) only guarded by one man firing a gun, a few others who run around with guns (though don't actually fire them), and another guy that Jones kickboxes for a few seconds.

Whether there were actually more men there or not, this drug bust definitely pisses off Dragon, and he subsequently plans to kill two birds with one stone by getting revenge and compensation at the same time. His goons subsequently kidnap Erica, who is now a banker. They force her to electronically transfer one billion dollars in securities to Dragon's account - apparently, this was the value of Dragon's drugs. (He had one billion dollars worth of drugs? And in one location?) Since the transaction needs 24 hours to be fully processed, he needs to keep Erica alive for that long, and that's how long Jones has to save her... apparently. You see, near the end of the movie, even after the transaction has been fully processed, Dragon keeps Erica alive for no apparent reason. Just goes to show that even a scummy drug dealer like Dragon can have a soft spot. (Apparently, that is.)

Before I get more into the puzzling plot and the puzzling way it is executed, let me first comment on the performance of lead actress Ruffner. You might think that since she took on all the key roles of the movie's production, the results would be an embarrassing vanity project in the vein of someone like David Heavener. Refreshingly, this is not the case here; Ruffner devotes a lot of time to the other main characters, as well to scenes where her character does not appear. But in the end, this focus ultimately ends up backfiring on the movie; Ruffner spends so much time on other characters and events, that she forgets to not only give herself enough time on the screen, but enough to do in this time so that she can become a strong enough lead character. 

For a woman who in real life is skilled in the martial arts, motorbike racing, and marksmanship, she doesn't give her Jones character that much to do; aside from those few kicks at that aforementioned drug bust, there are only a few more seconds of martial arts in the movie. A few scenes where she races a motorbike come across as just racing from point A to point B, with no feeling of urgency or danger in them. Most of the action she's given herself is simply shooting a gun in a very ordinary and generic fashion. (Incidentally, I've pretty much described all of the little action to be found in this movie.) Also, Ruffner isn't able to give Jones that much of an impression in whatever Jacquelyn Ruffner tries out for "Terminator 3"she is doing in her appearances. As I mentioned, the action is quite sparse, though there are sometimes other factors that distance ourselves from her actions, not just the distance that Jones seems to be frequently from the camera. Being completely covered by a motorbike helmet and uniform several times makes us wonder if there's a stuntman under there, for example. But she also doesn't give Jones that much dialogue, and she leaves a lot of her character's personality to be created by narration - narration that is provided by another character.

By the end of the movie, I was starting to wish that Ruffner had gone down the David Heavener route. The results may have come across as being somewhat self-indulgent, but the movie would probably have been more lively. Though Ruffner does occasionally shows signs that she has the potential to be the rough and tough heroine a movie like this needs, in the end I find it hard to judge her overall performance in this movie because she just doesn't have that much to do. At least she no worse or better than just about all her co-stars, who don't really make a strong impression for one reason or another. The lone exception is Sonya Eddy, who eventually appears as the police captain (and with her appearance, finally makes it clear just who has been narrating all of this time.) She has a commanding voice, and she puts some spunk into her limited role.

While I'm on that positive note, I might as well go into what else I enjoyed in the movie. There is some effective music, a kind you don't usually hear in an action movie, though it sure loses its effect by the time you hear those same bars being played for the fifth or so time. Also, there is some good photography, with the jungle footage looking nice, as well as some individual shots that just look cool, especially with the careful direction of the actors and props in these shots. Some of these shots use remote control helicopters ("Coptervision", according to the press package), and it's effective when Ruffner uses it to photograph a fast moving sequence taking place over a wide area - though not so effective when used to photograph a martial arts fight from a distance. It's clear from the cinematography and mood of some scenes that Ruffner has been influenced by Hong Kong cinema, which does give the movie a little different feel from many American action movies. (Pity that this Asian influence didn't also extend to the action sequences.)

And that's about all I can think of that's good to say about The Third Society. What's now left is to talk about its faults - and I will have to restrain myself from doubling the intended length of this review when getting into this. Most of what I found fault with in this movie boils down to how it was edited. The bad nature of this editing gives you the idea that perhaps Ruffner wasn't able to shoot "Look ma - one hand!"everything she intended. Throughout the movie, scenes suddenly start up with no warning or advance notice, and often start in what seems to be the middle of the sequence. It's usually very bewildering, and you have to use information that is revealed subsequently, plus your own judgment, to figure out just what was happening at that moment. This feeling of missing footage also extends to scenes that make more sense; some examples include a few times when footage gets reused, as well as several conversations between two people where the camera stubbornly focuses on just one of the speakers' faces, without ever cutting in any studious or reaction shots of the other speaker.

Even in scenes where there was definitely more footage for the editor to choose from have a peculiar nature to them. There is one sequence that does start out with a lack of footage - a jet is seen slowly taxiing down a runway, and then a few seconds later we see it flying high in the sky about a mile away. But it's what happens after that that is more puzzling. Seeing the jet flying away, Jones commandeers a helicopter to chase after the jet, and we get several minutes of Jones cruising the skies while her chief keeps radioing her to land. Finally she does. Since this helicopter scene does nothing for the plot, you have to ask yourself why Ruffner didn't just write out this sequence, and used the saved money to shoot the jet picking up speed and taking off. 

Another strange presentation comes earlier, when Erica is kidnapped. During this sequence, the movie suddenly cuts to Jones having a shootout on a sailboat. (We eventually learn later that Jones lives on this sailboat, and that one of Dragon's goons was sent to kill her.) During the struggle, Jones and the goon fall off the boat and sink beneath the waves, and they don't surface. We cut back to Erica being forced to make the security transfer. We cut back to the still waters of the ocean. We cut back to Erica making the transfer. We cut back to the still waters of the ocean. We cut back to Erica making the transfer. We cut back to the still waters of the ocean. We cut back to Erica making the transfer. We cut back to the still waters of the ocean. We.....

Though most of the negative side of the movie can be attributed to the editing, there are also moments that will remind viewers of the work of famous directors - not the likes of James Cameron or Sam Peckinpah, but directors like Doris Wishman and Ed Wood. The former comes with the post-dubbing of dialogue and sound effects; though these things might be corrected before the movie gets its commercial release, the screener I watched had gun battles where you don't hear all the gunshots, and some fight sequences where the punches sound like balloon pops. Hopefully some of the looping will be redone as well, because it's quite obvious at times when dialogue has How do you tell someone they are not properly attired for a sail? Simple - point a gun at a friend, and have them explain!been dubbed over, even when the characters' mouths aren't showing. The spirit of Wood is alive with stuff like some cornball narration ("It was a war. An unholy war. A war between good and evil, right and wrong. Between the darkness that threatens to swallow the light of one's soul, and the righteousness of the dawn.") and a scene on a sailboat where you see Ruffner's shadow peeking into the frame while she waits for her cue to walk onto the boat, as if she had just been walking down the dock seconds before. (Though to be fair, the screener was letterboxed, and the movie may be intended to be released in a full-screen format.)

Despite making an inauspicious motion picture debut, I don't think we have seen the last of Jacquelyn Ruffner. It's evident in the production notes, and even in the movie itself, that this is one determined woman who really fights to complete her dreams - an attribute that we really need to see more of. I'm sure she'll make another movie, and I would be interested to see what her next effort is like. It can't be any worse than this; after hitting so low the first time out, she has nowhere to go but up.

Also reviewed at: Cold Fusion Video

Check for availabiltiy on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Angel Of Fury, Bury Me An Angel, The Stranger

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