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Self Defense
(a.k.a. Siege)
(1983)

Director: Paul Donovan, Maura O'Connell  
Cast:
Tom Nardini, Brenda Bazinet, Daryl Haney


With all the wacky and violent movies I have reviewed for this web site, you might think that you have a good idea of what I am in real life. You might be thinking that I am a real confident person, one who freely and easily takes charge in a situation. Actually, I don't think that anyone who knows me well would think that of me. Truth be told, I am kind of a shy person, someone who is not wanting any kind of leadership position and would be glad to hand such responsibilities to someone else. But even though I am glad to give many kinds of responsibility to someone else, I often find myself giving a critical eye to whoever is in charge of a situation. For example, throughout my life I have had a wary eye towards the police in my community, province, or anywhere else in the country. I remember the first time I was severely disappointed by the police, that being one day in junior high when two representatives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came by to talk about police careers to my class. After talking for a while, it eventually came down to the part of the presentation when we could ask questions. Naturally, one of the first questions asked by my class was the inevitable question youth that are curious about police ask members of the police force, that question being, "Can we see your gun?" But those darn policemen wouldn't show us the heat that they were carrying. Seems there was something called "safety" that they followed, and they felt that even taking a gun out of their holster for a few seconds was risky. Of course, us youths were sorely disappointed, and we sulked in our seats for the rest of the presentation.

Seriously, though, I do have some concerns about the police around me. Now, I am sure that most policemen and policewomen in my country are honest, dedicated, and follow the law to the letter. But every so often I hear a report about police in my city or elsewhere in Canada that causes me enough concern that I slow down and try my best to not look guilty when a police officer passes me on the street. Several years ago, there was a famous case in Vancouver where an unruly person in the city's airport was so disruptive that the police were called in, who then tasered him twenty-five seconds after arriving at the scene. During the subsequent hearings and court cases, provocative facts like the fact the police planned to use their tasers even before reaching the airport were revealed, which of course made even more headlines in this never-ending case. In my city, I can recall several times when local dubious police conduct has been reported, seemingly every time in the independent news and never in the city's main newspaper. Still, even though I read or hear about such negative things about the police here, I realize that it could easily be a lot worse. I could face living in a country with really corrupt police, such as Mexico. Also, I could be facing a situation where there are no police, period. Believe it or not, this situation has faced one large community in Canada several times in the past. That community being Halifax, located on the east coast of Canada, where the police - at least some time ago and no longer, thank goodness - had the power to strike. They actually did several times, the most notorious strike happening in 1981, where the Halifax police went on strike for a whopping six weeks.

It's possible that word of this and other Halifax police strikes made their way to Hollywood and inspired the screenwriters of Robocop to write about a police strike happening in Detroit in their movie. But if this turned out to be true, it would not have been an original idea. The fact is Self Defensethat several years earlier, some other filmmakers were inspired enough by the Halifax police strike to make an entire movie set during a city-wide police strike, that movie being Self Defense (known as Siege in its native Canada.) Not only were these filmmakers Canadian (from the Salter Street Films company, who subsequently made the cult post-apocalypse movie Def-Con 4), and not only were they based in Halifax, unlike most Canadian filmmakers who hide their Canadian origins, they actually set Self Defense in Halifax during the police strike. The movie opens during the first night of the police strike, and it doesn't take long before a sense of law and order starts to crumble. That night, several self-appointed vigilantes calling themselves The New Order enter a gay bar and start to harass the patrons who are there. When they start to threaten the bar's bartender with physical injury, they accidentally kill him. Scared, the vigilantes call in their leader Cabe (Doug Lennox, Interstate 60), who decides that to cover their tracks they should kill every patron in the bar. One of the bar patrons, a man named Daniel, manages to escape the massacre, and he flees down the streets with the vigilantes in hot pursuit. Daniel heads to a small apartment building, and when he frantically knocks on the door, residents Horatio and Barbara (played by Tom Nardini and Brenda Bazinet) take him in and refuse to let the vigilantes in. Pretty soon, Daniel, Horatio, Barbara, and the rest of the building's inhabitants find themselves under siege by the vigilantes. Calling the police is of course no option, and with the vigilantes determined to now kill everyone in the building, it's now up to everyone in the building to defend themselves or figure out a way of escape.

Because I earlier mentioned that Canada happens to be the country of origin for Self Defense, you have probably guessed that this is a low budget movie, and you would be right. What you might not have guessed is that this movie is a very low budget movie, and this fact is unfortunately evident many times during the movie's eighty-five minutes. Most of the movie takes place in the dark, either outside or inside when the apartment building inhabitants turn off the lights to foil a sniper across the street, and sometimes it is so dark that it's hard to tell what exactly is going on. There are other problems that come from the movie's low budget. With no money to build sets, the filmmakers obviously shot on actual locations - small locations, to be exact. This results in the camera frequently being very close to the actors, and as a result it's sometimes hard to get a good feel of whatever location is being presented at any time. But the problems found in Self Defense go further than what is brought by the poverty row budget. While the filmmakers couldn't help working with a low budget, I think they could have spent a little more time with the script. I'll excuse them for using a basic premise that has been used in other movies before (such as Rio Bravo and Assault On Precinct 13), because there are very few totally original ideas out there. But it's in the smaller details where the script is often lacking. Take the portrayal of the bad guys, for instance. The bad guys come across as pretty much being all alike. We only learn two or three of their names, and they all have such little dialogue that there is very little in the way of making them individuals. Even the ringleader Cabe, who should be the most hissable villain of them all, gets little to make him stand out.

Had each of the villains had stronger personalities, I am confident that Self Defense would have been a lot better. But I must admit that even though the villains were underwritten, I still found them to be a pretty frightening bunch to a significant degree. Their homophobia makes them a distasteful bunch, for one thing; when they start insulting the gay bar patrons at the beginning of the movie, they really come across as ugly characters. And when they later become murderers, their criminal acts really illustrate that they have sick minds, especially when they start doing things like killing a blind man who couldn't possibly identify them later. They may not be "great" villains, but they are adequate. As for the movie's protagonists, there is some inadequate writing of them. Their relationships with each other are often murky, like there never being an explanation as to why there are two blind men in Horatio and Barbara's home at the time. Their written personalities are sometimes lacking as well, like how one resident of the apartment building happens to have various armaments and knows how to build booby traps and homemade weapons. Despite problems like these, I have to admit that I was pretty captivated by these characters in their plight. I liked them for the fact they were on Daniel's side right from the start and were willing to fight to defend him despite the possible consequences. Also, these particular characters all had above average intelligence. They never thought at any point that they were helpless, and each of them (even the two blind characters) came up with various ideas during the course of the movie as to what they could do regarding how to defend themselves and fight back. They are all a bunch of people that you will like and will root for.

Because I liked and believed these protagonists, and that I also bought the antagonists (though to a lesser degree than I would have liked), I found myself really getting into this movie. I really wondered who, on both sides, would survive the night and emerge victorious. It isn't just because of the way the characters are written that make Self Defense so engaging. A large part of the movie's success has to be credited to the direction. I don't know why it was necessary to have two directors on this movie - that usually is a sign of problems behind the scenes - but the movie comes across as if it were directed by one clear vision. The direction doesn't rely on crutches like music for the most part. Nor does the direction seem interested in showing many of the actual killings. A significant number of the deaths in the movie happen out of camera range, and we only get to see the bodies afterwards (if at all). Instead of focusing on gratuitous violence, which other filmmakers might have done, the movie seems more interested in the struggle of the protagonists. And when the protagonists do get the upper hand of a situation, there is no feeling of cheering or even relief. Instead, there is a feeling of misery, a sad feeling that society has crumbled enough to make self defense necessary. Both directors of the movie keep the tension up almost throughout the entire movie, even when the protagonists thwart an attack and there is a pause while the antagonists reassess the situation. The only time the direction stumbles is towards the end, when the final struggle was drawn out a bit too long for my taste. But despite the disappointing climax, as well as the crude touches by the screenplay and the ultra low budget, Self Defense in the end manages to overcome those obstacles and become a fairly engrossing experience. I can only imagine what greatness the filmmakers could accomplish with more time and more money.

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See also: Baker County U.S.A., Breaking Point, Tenement

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