The Sweeper

Director: Joseph Merhi           
C. Thomas Howell, Ed Lauter, Kristen Dalton

The world can be a cruel and unforgiving place. Quite often we have to struggle to find something good to hang onto, so we ourselves can find the will to keep going. But this challenge is substantially more than just finding something and staying with it. That's because the malevolent forces that are out there are so great, that just about anything that's good never lasts forever; one thing that even the biggest optimists must agree on is that throughout history, evil has always been a constant. For example, it reared its head in the early '80s up in Canada, where it got the government to stop funding real movies (like Rituals and Death Weekend) and fund pretentious garbage instead (and only of the kind where the director of the proposed project happened to also be the writer.) Years later, it sunk in its claws once again in the movie world. The various forces of evil arranged it so that, for reasons I still haven't been able to really discover, essentially finish off the prolific B-movie studio of PM Entertainment. It's funny, but when PM started around the mid-'80s, they actually seemed to be a tool of those evil forces, making unbelievably cheap and terrible movies like Chance, Dance Or Die, and The Newlydeads. Yet the company slowly improved, and in a few years was making top-grade movies like The Silencers and Steel Frontier. Then suddenly, company heads Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin parted ways. The PM name still seems to be alive, but now it's attached to absolute dreck like Con Express, made by completely different people.

But there's one other thing I have learned during my time here. While evil may be a constant, there is also another constant that keeps popping The horror... the horror...up even when things turn darkest: hope. It happens enough that even when it hasn't emerged during the worst of times, you might find yourself hanging on in anticipation for it eventually coming. When it does actually manifest itself somehow, it can come in different ways. The rarest such kinds are full-blown miracles, like when the Canadian government recently decided to completely overhaul film funding and get back to funding real movies. Most often it's simply a little but powerful thing that just happens to pop up along the way. Take several weeks back when I reviewed The Underground, where I bemoaned both the loss of PM Entertainment and the fact it would probably be the last of their movies I reviewed because I couldn't find any more in video stores. Well, several weeks after writing that review, I was poking into the wares of a pawn shop, and I stumbled across a copy of The Sweeper. That alone was a glimmer of hope for me, but just a few minutes after taking it home and starting to watch it, I knew this moment was something much more. PM might be dead, but the joy that I experienced from watching The Sweeper gave me all the hope I need to keep going until a legitimate successor comes along - no matter how long it takes.

In other words, The Sweeper kicks ass. No, that's not a fair description; The Sweeper really kicks ass. No; royally, ultimately, supremely, and lovingly kicks ass. It kicks ass in a way that makes the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone cower. It kicks ass in a way that gets Hong Kong action filmmakers to stand up and take notice. No, all that still doesn't quite get it. Oh, wait; The Sweeper kicks ass despite the fact it is saddled with C. Thomas Howell (Soul Man, The Outsiders) as its lead. Yep, now I think you have an idea just how many bruised butts result from this movie. If not, it won't take you long to get the picture if you watch the movie. It starts off by introducing us to Howell's character Mark, though back when he was still a boy. He's riding along with his policeman father (Lethal Tender's Jeff Fahey in a cameo, who also acted as associate producer) and his partner in their squad car. His father and his partner stop near the beach to talk to some shifty hoods, and to make it short, one of the hoods escapes in the struggle and drives off in the squad car down the nearby pier with Mark, hitting some people along the way.

What? That doesn't sound exciting? Well, to paraphrase someone famous, it depends on what your definition of "some" is. A few seconds in the chase, WHAM WHAM the hood driving the police car hits two people on the pier. A few seconds after that WHAM, another. Then after a few heartbeats, WHAM WHAM he hits two more people. Soon after that, WHAM and WHAM, he hits an additional two people. Then WHAM, another person. Not long after that... well, you get the point, I think. We get to see at least thirteen people visibly hit by the car in this scene. That sounds pretty impressive, but it's also in how he hits the people; a couple of people he hits with such force that they are flung into the air, over the railing and into the water. And that's just what we actually see; from P.O.V. shots from the front bumper of the car, it's clear the guy hits (or simply runs over) a lot of other people. This also goes for Mark's father, who had seconds earlier grabbed a nearby motorcycle and took off to pursue the hood and save his son. Though he's only visibly seen to hit one person, that's understandable, since he's more interested in pulling wheelies and making giant leaps with his bike when he's not smashing through the stalls along the pier. Things get even crazier from that point on, though I'll just say the delight just keeps building and explodes into ecstasy in a eye-popping stunt when they (finally!) get to the end of the pier. Oh, it's beautiful!!!!

The scene upon later reflection seems to be an exercise in gratuitous action and eye "See? I can be a cool action hero too! Look, I can hold a gun!"candy (though undeniably of the sweetest kind), but in fact it serves a purpose. As the next part of the movie starts rolling, it becomes clear director Joseph Merhi is interested in more than just delivering spectacle. He asks a thought-provoking question: Just how does childhood trauma affect the individual once that person becomes an adult? It was shown that Mark almost died in that beach incident, so he almost certainly is suffering from some trauma at this point. But to make sure of this for Mark's character, as well as to underline the question for the audience, Merhi takes it further. Later at home, a man named Christopher and some other men burst into Mark's home, and shoot his parents and sister (while disco music is playing, no less), showering blood all over the TV in the process. Christopher then plays some sick mind games with the cowering Mark for a few minutes before finally blasting him too - though Mark somehow survives. All this does indeed affect Mark; when we jump ahead 15 years, we learn he has a broken marriage. Oh yes, he has also killed nine people, and we see him beat a guy half to death in a busy shopping mall... but all on duty at his policeman job, so since he's still pounding the beat, I guess his superiors consider him stable enough. The behavior does catch the eye of one particular cop (Lauter, The Longest Yard), who recruits him into a secret society that gives its members the chance to deliver a special kind of "crime management... without the constraints of the legal system," ... and in return you get oodles of cash, sports cars, mansions to live in, tons of automatic weapons at your disposal, and partners of the female persuasion that want to have sex with you. Hey guys, forget Mark - sign ME up!

Of course this setup is really an attempt to justify, with as little effort as possible, the bringing in of a lot of action sequences that have little to no consequence to the simple story that generated them in the first place. But quite frankly, I didn't care much about that in this particular case; after all, this is PM we are talking about here. Those of you who are already familiar with the kind of action scenes typically found in their product will have an idea of what to expect, but even you will be both surprised and delighted by what goes on here. PM went all-out with this movie in so many ways. First of all, take the number of action sequences that occur in the movie. To give you some idea of this, by dividing the running time with the number of action scenes, I calculated that no more than ten minutes go by on average between all the action sequences. It's hard to call The Sweeper a boring movie will all this action crammed into it, even more so when you actually observe all this action. We have all seen in countless other movies raids on drug baron's mansions, as well as a few dozen people in a confined space being machine-gunned massacred all at once. Merhi seems to realize this, so he gives everything in these deja-vu scenes an extra kick; bigger and more splattery shotgun wounds, people propelled further back when hit by bullets, brightly colored bullet-propelled potpourri from furniture flying up and around in a colorful display as victims shake around while being hit multiple times, these kind of things.

Actually, only a few of the action scenes in The Sweeper have that deja-vu feeling to them. The rest of these scenes possess some significant Why didn't I get these "hot wheels" when I was a kid?degree of originality to them. Take the scene early on in the movie, where Mark is pursuing a psycho across the rooftops of L.A. Though the chase itself is pretty well executed (the direction, for once, gives us a real feeling of the height and limited space the participants are faced with), I will admit that a chase across rooftops is not a new thing in motion pictures. However, this aspect is redeemed by the fact the chase climaxes with a spectacular (and somewhat sadistic) stunt that I think I can safely say you haven't seen the likes of before. You can find the same kind of thing later in the movie, where Mark is pursuing a target on a freeway at night. While freeway chases are a dime a dozen, even those that also involves guns, the chase is livened up by the introduction of a new obstacle. The target drives past a truck carrying propane tanks, shoots off the barrier keeping them in place, and shoots the tanks as they fall off the truck and onto the highway. Which of course results in lots of explosions, more civilian vehicles getting blown up and damaged, and more mayhem - all done with the usual PM slickness, including a couple of "Holy...!" visuals. And just like in that foot chase, Mark overcomes his adversary in a totally (and spectacular) original way. I think you could also consider it sadistic, which makes it even better.

One of the biggest surprises in The Sweeper is that former teen heartthrob Howell actually gives a pretty decent performance. It seems he chose this role so he could seriously shake off his old image and present himself anew, right down to his physical features; he's pretty unrecognizable sporting his long hair, a tattoo, and a goatee. Howell does well with the physical aspects, from handling guns to running and jumping around, and giving Mark a believable attitude. He doesn't make Mark a snarling and constantly lunging basket case, but gives him enough edge so it's believable when he all of a sudden plunges into the action. He even has a few quiet moments (like with his ex-wife) where you see him struggling with stress but still managing to be pretty civilized. I just wish that the script also went to some lengths for the character of Mark. Though Mark goes through a lot of wild experiences, not much actually changes with Mark, if you follow me. The movie seems set up for Mark to bump into Christopher again, but that never happens. The subplot concerning his child and ex-wife is extremely slight, with a resolution that comes out of practically nothing Mark does. Mark's final dealings with the vigilante organization, as grand as they appear, do not leave the main plot resolved as well, considering what we know of the organization - one that's nation-wide and has been running undetected by the public for 50 years!

I could also spend time listing a number of surprisingly amateurish slip-ups in Merhi's It's not enough to jump out of a window in a PM movie - you must also be on firedirection. It's clear that the same stretch of highway used for that propane tank chase is also used for the climactic chase, despite the fact that this time both a tanker truck and an airplane get involved in all the explosions and car wrecks. Mark's partner (Kristen Dalton, The Dead Zone) in vigilantism seems to be headed for some major involvement, but ends up simply being abandoned and forgotten about. And right out of Ed Wood, the windows showing the outside in one massacre scene show it's the middle of the day, but when one bad guy escapes and runs outside, it is suddenly the middle of the night. But all that is like considering Michelangelo's Pieta not a work of art because he smashed it. I instead choose to relish touches like a cut from a burning car wreck to steaks sizzling on a barbeque. And find myself learning things like why every man should know the lyrics to the Honeycomb jingle. Maybe The Sweeper has flaws, but the whole package still kicks major ass for those who like this kind of thing. And while PM may be gone as I knew it, hope built in me as I watched it. I realized there had to be others out there who are able to live up to this level. I realized that as long as The Sweeper is out there in some format, others will inevitably watch it. I realized that The Sweeper may someday have a large number of fans. Perhaps that might lead to a rediscovery of PM movies. Perhaps from that, people may be desired to follow the PM way. I don't know what may happen. All I know is that I've done my part by bringing this movie to your attention. The rest is up to you.

This is a tag team review, pairing up with Kenner of Ziggy's Video Realm and Movies In The Attic. To read Kenner's review, click here!

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See also: Executive Target, The Silencers, The Underground