Lethal Force

Director: Alvin Ecarma             
Frank Prather, Pat Williams, Cash Flagg Jr.

You would think after my experience with The Third Society that I'd be greatly hesitant to view another homemade action movie made on a spare change budget. Well, when you are as cheap as I am, you'll look for anything that'll save you from spending a few bucks at the video store, so recently when I was asked if I'd like a screener of  the no-budget independent actioner Lethal Force to be sent to me for review, I accepted. If this submission of screeners keeps up, in a few months I'll have enough saved to make my own poverty-row action flick.

I guess it's kind of unfair for me to label Lethal Force as just another action cheapie. I should point out that Lethal Force does manage to differentiate itself substantially from most others of its ilk. For one thing, it's It can't be Flagg's son - this imposter actually has talent!a spoof of action movie, not just of one particular action style, but of several different kinds - blaxploitation, Hong Kong, and samurai, among others. The idea to do a spoof on a low budget seems to make sense; if you don't have the budget to emulate other serious-minded action movies, you might as well use the low budget to your advantage to make fun of them. The biggest difference between Lethal Force and others of its kind is that this effort is actually pretty decent. It's far from perfect - with guerrilla filmmaking like this, it's inevitable that things are often uneven and kind of sloppy - but it shows creativity and a sense of fun, which is more than you can say for a lot of slicker and higher-budgeted action movies.

Though the movie borrows elements from different actions genres throughout,
the core of the movie is right out of John Woo (The Killer, Hard Boiled)
territory. The opening sequence introduces us to hit man Savitch (Cash Flagg
Jr.) making a hit on a witness in police custody, demonstrating for us during the process that this is one bad mother you better hope wants to be your friend rather than your enemy. In fact, it's amazing a mean bastard like Savitch has any friends, but he does - Jack Carter (Frank Prather), all-American family man and gangster, who frequently gives Savitch his assignments.

But one day, the situation changes. After a hard day of lawbreaking, Jack comes home to find himself seized by the goons of rival gangster Mal Locke
(Andrew Hewitt), then subsequently his wife is killed in front of his eyes and his son held captive under the threat of death - unless Jack can bring Savitch (who left Locke for dead years ago) out of the open so he can be killed by Locke's goons or Jack himself. What follows are struggles with loyalty and friendship, conflicts between doing what's right and fulfilling one's obligations... as well as a lot of sequences where people are bloodily shot or hacked with knifes, and blood squirting out of bodies with the intensity and volume of water rushing out of a hose.

Needless to say, this is a very violent movie - though when you are spoofing
hard-edged action movies you can't avoid the raison d'etre that's found in them. Bloody cry-baby!(Besides, violence is cool in movies, so why complain?) Plus, the violence in itself gets satirized. Obviously, there are countless scenes where outlandish carnage plays before us; people fall several stories to land on hard pavement and are able to stagger away, bullets constantly produce big moist wounds when entering bodies, and knives slash open arteries so all that fast-rushing blood gushes out just like in the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. By there being so much violence and it being presented over the top (a technique previously seen in other successful movies, like Dead Alive), you simply can't take it seriously. Sure, a pseudo lobotomy with a drill that's  appropriate for cracking open safes would be pretty nasty in real life, but seeing it as a movie, with blood splattering everywhere and the receiver reacting to the drill as if he just has a bad headache, you can't help but laugh.

Many other action spoofs would limit themselves to just satirizing the level
of violence during the action sequences, but Lethal Force has the sense to
realize that just doing that would get old pretty fast. The action sequences also spoof specific elements that you see over and over in action films - jumping behind a wall to take cover from flying bullets, the hero happening to find a discarded object that will save him from the jam he's presently in, even things like someone adjusting an article of clothing during a momentary reprieve in a hand-to-hand fight with an opponent. Not only are these pokes at these conventions funny, they also at the same time point out that a lot of these things, despite looking cool in straight action movies, are really dumb when you think about it.

At the same time, strangely enough, you realize that (winks to the audience aside), these action sequences are actually pretty good. It is obvious that writer/director Alvin Ecarma not only studied other movies to find action-oriented elements to be lampooned, but to find and emulate the kind of elements that make an action sequence good. That's not to When a kung fu expert tells you to take your sunglasses off, you better do it before he doessay that Ecarma was not working with any limitations; if you study the martial art sequences closely, you can tell that the participants aren't expert fighters. The fighters are making moves that anyone could do with little to no practice, and each shot in the sequences usually doesn't run for more than a few seconds until cutting to another camera angle (unlike in Hong Kong movies where the camera can stay on the fighters for a long time before editing to another angle.) Yet these sequences still work. For one thing, the fighters make their moves very fast - not only suggesting the Hong Kong style of fighting, but better hiding the fact these are not especially fancy moves. As well, the actors themselves put a lot of conviction in their fighting, not treating it as a joke. They even go to the trouble to performing a few minor stunts themselves, which just adds to the authentic feeling.

The participants even manage to hit the right note when they are out of the
battlefield. Cash Flagg Jr. (an obvious pseudonym - I suspect it may actually be Ecarma himself) makes his hitman character both a likable and deadly brute, speaking like Clint Eastwood (both with his voice and what he says), while having the slick and deadly qualities of someone like Chow Yun-Fat. Andew Hewitt is hilarious as Mal Locke, managing to speak all of his lines of dialogue - no matter the context - in the same bland whisper. Everyone else in the movie for the most part does a good job as well, also playing their roles completely straight as well as frequently adding that right touch of blandness that Hewitt uses.

I also liked the fact that Ecarma wrote and cast his characters with a variety to their sex and ethnicity; it makes things a little more colorful, as well as resulting in some offbeat characters, such as Big Bertha (Allison Jacobson), a fez-wearing female mobster with a really strange laugh. I just wish that Ecarma had also gone to the trouble to give these characters more than a face value background. Aside from learning that Savitch is ruthless and can kill in a thousand different ways, we learn almost nothing else about him, except that's it's kind of unbelievable that it takes him so long to figure out he's being set up. Little more is learned about Mal Lock; his motivations for wanting Savitch dead are unclear at first, eventually explained by a poorly edited-in flashback, then all attempts at expanding his character stop right afterwards. Some other characters (Big Bertha, Rita) are not given a proper introduction, so with their equally impoverished personalities, we are puzzled for a long time as to why they are in the movie in the first place.

Instead of the characters being designed to create action and gags for the movie, Some gals like tongue-action just a little too muchhere it's more like they are devices to carry action and gags that are thrust upon them. While the action sequences manage to deliver all the same, the humor is extremely mixed. Some of the gags are creative as well as funny; I loved the joke of hearing the same quick bursts of music played over and over during key moments. (The musical score by Jim Williamson is a nice mix of different styles, though how much of it is his is questionable, since I recognized some of it being stolen from Ennio Morricone.) Also enjoyable was the movie managing to fit into the storyline very familiar lines of dialogue from countless other action movies (i.e. "This is a big mistake!" "I know - yours!") The funniest gags come with parodying John Woo, specifically the homoerotic glances and the montage flashbacks (here, the protagonists think back to the good times in the past when they were killing and counterfeiting together.)

But for every gag that works, there is one that falls flat. There's one sequence involving a guard with an unnatural lust to Carter's son that is not only tasteless, but has a sense of desperation to it. Speaking of desperation, many of the gags that fail depart from the movie's normally straight-faced viewpoint and have a cartoon-like feel to them, like when someone jumps in the air and fights his opponent for half a minute before landing on the ground. Despite the fact that the movie is only about 70 minutes long, you start to get the feeling the movie is grasping at straws towards the end, not just with the gags, but with they storyline - it seems that Ecarma never quite planned how to properly continue and end the story after setting up the situation. But he went ahead anyway, and you have to admire him for somehow finishing up with a result that, while uneven, certainly keeps you watching. You've got to admire a filmmaker that will have all the dozens of thugs wearing white masks that completely cover their faces ostensibly for artistic reasons - though when studying the movie, realizing that Ecarma never puts more than five of them onscreen at a time, obviously using the same five guys over and over.

Also reviewed at: Cold Fusion Video

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Completely Totally Utterly, The Takeover, The Third Society