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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Victim (2011)

Director: Michael Biehn
Stars: Michael Biehn, Jennifer Blanc and Ryan Honey
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Introducing The Victim at its Arizona premiere at the Phoenix Film Festival, Michael Biehn, who grew up in the state and studied drama at the University of Arizona, so was on home ground of sorts, explained the motivation behind his second directorial effort. 'It's just like cotton candy,' he said, and he meant it. He wanted the audience to enjoy themselves, of course, but not to end up dissecting it over the water cooler at work. It's aimed at being pure escapism and only pure escapism. I'm not sure why he highlighted it so much. Sure, this is far from an original story and his debut in the director's chair, The Blood Bond, made a year earlier, is apparently even less so. Perhaps he felt that the audience might have got upset at the clich├ęs if he hadn't warned them beforehand. Frankly, it didn't matter. However you come to it, The Victim is a lot of fun from the very beginning and it never lets up. It doesn't do much else but it certainly entertains.

It begins the way it means to go on: with a sex scene. We're in the woods and some guy is doing a chick from behind. He's into it. She obviously isn't. When she stops playing along, he snaps her neck. We soon discover that the killer is Jim, aka Det James Harrison. Yep, our killer is a cop, and General Hospital actor Ryan Honey is like a sleazy Burt Lancaster playing a sleazier Tom Selleck. He's in the woods with fellow detective Jonathan Cooger, apparently an undercover narcotics officer. Why Cooger thinks he can maintain his cover by picnicking with the man tipped to be the next sheriff, I have no idea. His excuse may be that while Jim is banging Mary, he aims to get some from Annie, a believable cause for a slip in professional ethics as she's played by Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's wife and business partner and co-producer of this film. If that's why Mary dies and Annie lives, that's fine with me. She's sexy as hell and the camera loves her.

She's also really good at playing the victim. She isn't the greatest actress to ever grace a movie screen and this is hardly the greatest role ever given to an actress, but as she sees Mary's body and runs for her life through the Arizona woods, she's believably as scared shitless as I've seen from anyone in a long time. She's too talented to be restricted to scream queen roles, but on the basis of this, they're screaming out for her. Of course she finds herself at a cabin in the middle of nowhere and pleads for help from the owner who we know is played by Biehn himself, because we watched him drive there in a sequence so long that it rivalled the similar one that sat behind the non-existent opening credits in Manos: The Hands of Fate. Her chaos is contrasted well with his peace and quiet. He's Kyle Linato and while she's been running through the woods in abject terror, he's been reading and listening to self help lectures. For some reason he lets her in.
And that pretty much sets the stage for the entire rest of the film, because as Biehn mentioned, this is cotton candy not Wild Strawberries. You could write much of the rest yourself and not be too far off what Biehn conjures up from Reed Lackey's story, both in the natural progression of the plot and in the less natural turns it takes. For instance, when Kyle and Annie go to look for Mary's body they don't find it, so they head back to the cabin and jump in the sack. You know, like you do. Maybe it can be vaguely justified on the basis that Annie is supposed to be an idiot co-ed or some such, all about sex, power and free coke, but come on, her best friend was just murdered and she's on the run from the cops who did it. Hot monkey sex surely can't be top of her agenda at this point! It makes more sense on a different level: Biehn and Blanc are a couple, this was the first scene shot, she has a great rack and, as she says, he looks really good for 54.

To be fair, this enjoyable cinematic nonsense follows the first really good scene of the film. To begin with, Biehn didn't seem quite right. He wasn't bad, but he could have been better. It made me wonder whether he should really direct himself. Then the cops arrive at his cabin and ask to come in. The tension generated by the three as he refuses is delicious and from then on I saw Biehn a little differently. Kyle is an interesting character, albeit mostly through not being that interesting. He's living at his uncle's cabin deep in the woods because he's trying to keep away from trouble. We don't quite know what kind, but the impression is that he's not very bright but he's both very capable and down to earth. He's exactly the sort of character who might turn a simple situation into a complex one by reacting in ways that don't serve his best interests, just because. Like this one, where he hides the girl even though it makes him an obvious target.
He's something else too, though Biehn seemed surprised when I mentioned it to him after the screening so presumably he didn't aim for it. Kyle is a very refreshing character: he unfailingly says the things we want him to say and does the things we want him to do. It doesn't matter if they're the right things or not, and they often aren't, but they're exactly what we want from him. For instance, when Jim breaks into his house to kidnap Annie, Kyle rescues her in his boxers and uses a heated crowbar to get the truth out of him. Frankly, nobody in their right mind is going to torture the next sheriff to get him to confess to something that he's promptly going to pretend he never confessed to, because the moment he's free he's going to shoot you in the face, but it doesn't matter. We want him to do this because Jim is a slimeball and we want him to get his as a matter of principle. This is not great storytelling, but it's refreshing to be given what we want.

And on it goes, continuing to entertain without trying too hard to keep things believable. There's some mild philosophy here and there, but it's nothing groundbreaking. For instance, Jim explains the depth behind the title in a line of dialogue: 'Take life by the balls and get what you want, or you can be the victim.' See, it isn't just about screaming Annie. It's about being the man or being the victim. Life's a game and Jim plays it really well, but Kyle may just play it better. While Annie turns out to be worth a little more as a character than she's initially set up to be, this is a notably testosterone fuelled thriller. There's a lot of to and fro action suspense, as Jim and Kyle gain and lose the upper hand, done well enough for us to stay with it throughout. There's some sex, some violence, some memorably cheesy dialogue: everything you'd expect, all done well on next to no budget. It doesn't look cheap until you think about certain things. And we don't think too much.
There's a thank you in the end credits to Robert, and which one is hardly a surprise. Biehn had read a book by Robert Rodriguez called Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, which spoke to the techniques he developed to be able to make El Mariachi on a microbudget. While I haven't read it, so can't speak to what he learned, Biehn obviously paid attention because this looks like a lot more than it cost. It was shot entirely day for night with a single camera, 40 setups a day for 12 days, 12 hours a day. That sex scene was the first shot because Biehn hadn't finished the script at that point, so a dialogue free romp with his real life wife was safe. Most noticeable for me were the fights. They're very old school, tough punchfests like you'd expect in old Clint Eastwood movies, but they're also mostly outside. We don't see sets and props get broken here, because that would have cost money.

The cast were the crew, something you expect in microbudget cinema, but not necessarily from people that are recognisable. Everyone knows who Michael Biehn is, given that he took on Arnie in The Terminator, albeit as a different Kyle. He's a regular for James Cameron, whose budgets for single movies exceed that of entire countries. We don't expect someone like this to appear in a movie that cost nothing, but then he did write and direct too and is building up his production company. It's going to pay off well for him because this is deservedly going to make a quick and decent profit. It demonstrates what can be achieved without scary money and frankly, I'd rather go to see movies like this than movies like Avatar or The Avengers that cost hundreds of millions of bucks. If this was the average Hollywood film, tickets could be five bucks a pop, I'd be seeing two or three every week and everyone would be making money. That's not a bad dream, is it?

It's certainly what I'm going to take away from this. As Biehn suggested, it's cotton candy. There isn't much to think about, though there is a neat little twist at the end. It's mindless action, done well if not particularly originally. Biehn plays a solid hero, somewhat different from the perennial soldier roles he seems to get typecast as. In many ways he isn't even a character, he's the will of the audience taking the place of a character. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure movie where you're torn away from peace and quiet by a sexy and buxom young wench who arrives in mortal peril and requires your tough and manly help to save her. Cue the sex and violence. I'm certainly not complaining. I just wish more films were like this! I'll certainly pay to see the next film from BlancBiehn Productions on the basis of this one, but I also hope that Biehn passes on my wish to James Cameron that at least one viewer would love to see what he could do with no budget too.

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