Director: J. A. Steel   
J. A. Steel, Ben Bayless, Glen Jensen

Although it's been years since I started this website, and the memories of many movies that I've reviewed have faded to nothing, I still remember my experiences with The Third Society very well to this day. I remember being thrilled when I was first contacted by writer/director/star J. A. Steel with the offer to review her movie; I was flattered that someone would think highly of me to offer their movie to be reviewed, and also relieved that I would be saved from having to pay a rental fee for a movie that week. I remember being intrigued that I would be watching an action movie created by a woman, something that hasn't happened many times; perhaps a female perspective could bring a new and refreshing twist to the genre. I remember getting the screener in the mail and popping it into my VCR, ready for some action. And I remember watching the movie... unfortunately. If you read my review of The Third Society, you will see that I did not find it a good movie at all. Though there were a small handful of competent touches, overall I thought it to be a very incompetently made movie, and (its biggest sin) sorely lacking in action. Filled with pain, I wrote a pretty damning review of the movie, but my pain didn't end with watching the movie and writing a review. You see, after I wrote the review, the review was accidentally erased just prior to it being put online, and I had the painful task of writing the review (and reliving the pain of watching the movie) again in just a short period of time.

I don't like having to write bad reviews of movies. I would rather be given the chance to tell readers of a great experience I had with watching a movie, and hoping they will be intrigued enough to seek out the movie for themselves and watch it. I felt especially bad with The Third Society because J. A. Steel had put a lot of work into the movie and I had the unpleasant task of telling her that she had almost completely failed in her quest. Also, I was afraid that Steel might take offense at my damning of her movie, and she might seek me out and use her real-life martial art skills on me for revenge. Fortunately, after reading my review, I got an e-mail from Steel that indicated that she took my review with good humor, and that she seemed to realize the shortcomings of her movie. That was the last I heard from Steel for a long time. During that time, even though I watching hundreds of movies since, for some reason I kept remembering her and her movie. As I indicated in my review of The Third Society, this was one determined woman, and that we probably haven't heard the last of her. I remember going to the Internet Movie Database one day to look her up and I found out she had directed a short (Dive The Deep Blue), though there were no details. Then one day recently, out of the blue I got an e-mail from Steel. She had made another movie - Salvation - and she wondered if I would like a screener so I could review it. I was curious to see how she had progressed as a filmmaker, so I said yes, send it along.

I knew nothing about the movie or what Steel had done for it before getting the movie and the press materials in the mail. Getting the press materials in hand, I discovered that Steel was still a woman determined to get her movies made and publicized. The press materials indicated that within 48 hours of being released at Amazon, the movie was sold out (though the press materials didn't indicate just how many copies of the movie were sold.) The press materials also indicated that Salvation had played in several film festivals in the United States, and even played in one film festival in Croatia. (Though the name of the film festival in Croatia - "Trash Film Festival" - didn't exactly fill me with hope.) The synopsis of the movie contained in the press materials indicated that Steel was aiming for a more ambitious movie than with The Third Society, which was more or less a simple cop-versus-drug dealers movie. Instead, the movie has a supernatural twist. Here's the synopsis: "On October 13, 1307 the protectors of the Christian Pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, the Knights Templar, were sentenced to death by the Catholic Church for heresy. The souls of two of the Knights burned at the stake, Malchezidek (Ben Bayless) and Gabriel (J. A. Steel) were condemned to continue the heavenly battle between good and evil, fighting for the souls of men. Seeking to end her existence in Purgatory and find Redemption, Gabriel saves murdered 8 year old Michaela (Alyssa Wilson) and hides her away in a small Midwest town run by Sheriff Dade (Glen Jensen). Several years pass when Michaela (Heather Surdukan) finally confronts the Biker Gang that killed her led by Billy Bedlam (Devon Brewster). Sheriff Dade suddenly has a string of unexplained murders that all lead to Michaela as the killer. Michaela must choose sides in the heavenly battle between Malchezidek and Gabriel and her own existence in Purgatory forever."

That premise is certainly more ambitious than in Steel's last movie. Maybe it isn't totally original, but at least the more familiar elements haven't been done to death by previous movies. But what about the execution of this premise? Did Steel somehow manage to improve her filmmaking techniques since The Third Society? I'm happy to report that Salvation is indeed an improvement over that movie. For one thing, it looks like a lot more time and money were poured into the making of this movie. For example, in the opening scenes set in the past, we actually get to see some chainmail knight costumes that look passable, and we actually get to see a castle. (Though from the angle taken of the shot of the castle, it looks like it might actually be one of those restaurants that cater to customers with a medieval fetish.) In the modern day portion of the movie, we are taken to a lot more locations than in The Third Society, from bars and motels to countryside and graveyards. The events that take place in these locations - past and present - are staged with a bit more style than in Steel's previous movie. The style is somewhat derivative at times (night in an alley is punctured by headlights and fog), but at least there is some style at times. The musical score is also an improvement. While The Third Society was content in playing the same song over and over on its soundtrack, Salvation has a number of songs on its soundtrack, from church organ chants to electric guitars and soft rock.

The acting here is also a notch better than in The Third Society. There is no actor here who is as good as Sonya Eddy was in that movie (though Heather Surdukan makes a valiant effort at times as the adult Michaela), and the villains here are lacking definite menace, but no one here is aggressively bad. All these things I've described illustrate that Steel has made some definite leaps and bounds in her filmmaking work. But is all of this enough to make Salvation a good movie? Unfortunately, that is not the case, and there are a number of reasons why. In fairness to Steel, there a number of problems she probably couldn't have helped because even though the budget was probably higher this time, this is still a very low budget enterprise. Take the special effects, for one thing. While there are more special effects than in The Third Society, they are pretty cheesy. The computer graphics (multiple arrows flying in the air, people appearing and disappearing into thin air, etc.) look like they were done for a computer game ten or more years ago. When someone is stabbed with a sword, it's shot at an angle where it is obvious that the sword is brushing past the person's side not facing the camera; you don't actually get to see the sword wound. The low budget also obviously limited Steel's vision in other ways as well. For example, the prologue - telling viewers what happened to the now supernatural character in 1307 - is (apart from a few quick shots) accomplished by a title crawl and a narrator instead of showing us. The present day events are also hampered by the lack of funds as well; for one thing, the biker gang consists of just four members.

While some of the problems of Salvation may not have been Steel's fault, there are others that indicate she still has a lot to learn about the craft of filmmaking. Although the movie is not as incompetently made as The Third Society, there are a number of flaws that will have viewers laughing out loud, groaning out loud, or simply shaking their head. The movie throughout has a washed-out look, with visible grain appearing in some scenes, sometimes severely. (Some might say this is not Steel's fault, given the low budget, but I have seen a number of micro-budgeted movies that looked better that this.) Sometimes the background noise in a scene makes it hard to make out the characters' dialogue. A number of the flaws in the movie are simply laughable. There's a scene in a bar where the TV in the background has been obviously obscured with an electronic blur (why didn't Steel just angle the shot without the TV, or simply turn it off?) A vehicle in the movie apparently stays in the same spot for fifteen years, and is still in good condition. A man is knocked to the ground by the bikers, and in the next shot his face and torso are suddenly covered with blood. (And when the bikers start kicking him, the kicks are obviously not connecting.) And in this unidentified city, which has a freeway and an airport, a sheriff is told on the radio to go to "the coffee shop", despite there obviously being more than one coffee shop in this city.

While some moments like these are hilarious to view, there are not enough such moments to recommend this movie as a so-bad-it's-good viewing experience. The film is mostly a dull affair, even with all its incompetence. While the premise of the movie may have made you believe you would be getting a lot of action, the movie seems almost determined to be as unexciting as possible. There's not much more action here than what was in The Third Society. There are a couple of swordfights, though both of them are choreographed to progress very slowly onscreen, as if the actors are just rehearsing the fights. As for the bikers being killed off, not only are there only just four bikers to be killed off, viewers will have to wait almost an hour before the first one is killed off. Still, as dull as Salvation is at times, watching it is a less painful experience than with The Third Society. I hope this improvement starts to be a pattern with Steel, and that her next movie will be even better, hopefully enough of an improvement so that I can recommend it. Though while this movie is less painful to watch, I did suffer some additional pain that I didn't count on. You see, Steel sent me a DVD screener of the movie, and when I tried to play it, it didn't work on my machine. But I promised to review the movie, so I had to plunk down some money to buy an official factory copy; the additional pain came in my wallet.

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See also: Angel Of Fury, The Stranger, The Third Society