Tuesday 2 September 2014

.357: Six Bullets for Revenge (2013)

Director: Brian Skiba
Stars: Laurie Love, Brian Ames, Fred Williamson, William Katt, Tony Mandarich, Miss Krystle and Shane Dean
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
One Devil's Night in Detroit, something horrible happens. Eric Draven is murdered the night before he's to marry Shelly Webster, who is raped and left for dead. A year later, the dead man is resurrected from the grave by the mysterious power of a crow to wreak his bloody revenge on the thugs who killed him: T-Bird, Tin-Tin, Funboy and Skank, who all work for a gang boss named Top Dollar. Oh, sorry, wrong movie. We're in 2013, almost two decades on from The Crow. This is .357: Six Bullets for Revenge, written and directed by Brian Skiba, who is not David Schow reincarnated, even if they have the same number of letters. This is about a young couple who did make it to the altar, but only just. Eric is murdered, while Jade is raped and left for dead. There's no crow, but a mysterious power brings her back from the dead and she returns a year later to wreak her bloody revenge on the thugs who killed Eric: Colorado, Zander, Pretty Boy and Ravyn. Oh, and Big Money, but he's not the boss here, just one of the thugs. The boss is Lyle Barnes.

If that isn't enough, and frankly it is, this goes a lot deeper, so deep that Skiba really ought to have had Schow and Shirley credited as co-writers. The big bad boss runs a bar with live bands booked. He and his girl have a succession of playthings which they break, and for break read kill during kinky sex. The dead girl's ring is pawned quickly, prompting a violent return to the pawnshop, though it was the owner in The Crow who had the .357. Of course, the black guy gets killed first, but then that's hardly restricted to these movies. The memorable costume that leading lady Laurie Love dresses up in is black and feathered. It's even worth bringing up the frenzied opening credits, which are laid out like a comic book and hint at the source of The Crow in the comic books of James O'Barr, and the finalé, which involves a swordfight on a roof in a storm. The biggest difference is that there's no crow here, unless Fred Williamson's character is seen as an amalgam of the crow and Ernie Hudson's cop. Even the dialogue often has parallels.

Beyond this being a thinly veiled remake of The Crow, a year early for a twentieth anniversary tribute, it's the cast that leaps out here. That film had an amazing cast, not merely Hudson and Brandon Lee, but Bai Ling, Michael Wincott and Tony Todd. Williamson is one of a pair of big names here, William Katt the other in the pawnshop owner role that Jon Polito nailed so magnificently in the original. Both are good additions to the cast, though Katt has little to do and Williamson clearly didn't travel far from his usual routine. He's playing himself playing the Hammer (literally) who plays the standard sensei we see all the time in films with any connection to martial arts. Of course, he's been merging the first two levels of that triumvirate for decades and the third is hardly a stretch. As such he can play this sort of character in his sleep, but Hammer roles tend to fall into two categories: those he cares about and those he doesn't. Fortunately he seems to care about this one because he does a pretty decent job.
In this telling, Jade is the half of the newlyweds who wakes up after being killed. There's good reason for the hit: she was a cherished plaything of Lyle and Ravyn, but she chose to abscond with their bartender and $50,000 in cash. No wonder Lyle's enforcers chase them down to do something about it. You could say they had a point, but rape and murder is notable overkill, so perhaps revenge for Jade is justified too and that's why we have a movie. Jade is Laurie Love, returning from her lead role in Blood Moon Rising and, well, pretty much any other movie Skiba's name is attached to. Williamson and Katt aside, the cast was sourced from local talent prominent enough that I've reviewed other films featuring the vast majority of them, so I instantly assumed Michael Alvarez was trying to be Seth Gandrud as her husband Eric but, once I realised the connections to The Crow, I realised that he's clearly aiming for Brandon Lee. Skiba's odd twist here is to have the girl survive and seek revenge, which, hey, I'm all for.

His other major change is what's highlighted by the title, that Jade swaps her ring for a .357 magnum and only gets six bullets in the deal, conveniently one for each of the people she wants revenge on. In a neat grindhouse touch, she even paints them up nicely with the names of their intended victims on the side. I liked that touch a lot more than some of the other faux grindhouse nods. Like we really need help from on screen graphics to figure out who's going to get theirs next? Let the story roll! One Skiba switch up that I appreciated was the whole training angle. While Eric Draven was invincible from moment one, Jade isn't; she completely screws up her first hit, aiming for Big Money while he's getting head in a parking lot of a strip club but getting taken down herself instead. Here's where the Hammer shows up, because she's an amateur who needs professional assistance, he's already on site, he read about her in the papers and he sees her deadly revenge as important enough to step in and help out with.

In fact he dedicates a year of his life to making sure she'll succeed in her deadly mission, training her up in martial arts, gunplay and all the other little things she'll need to get the job done. He's a Vietnam vet with apparently nothing better to do and he either owns the boxing gym that becomes her home base or he's merely important enough to whoever does for it to make no difference. The wonderfully named Jack Neptune calls him Master Hammer and bows his head when talking to his sensei. Richard Anderson does a decent job in an oddly subservient role, one of the most consistent actors in the film. It's here in these training scenes that Laurie Love does her best work, useless to begin with but gradually building up her skills until she can take down her trainers. She's pretty when she smiles, but doesn't get much chance to do that here, of course. She's at her most natural and thus her most believable when she's training. This movie would have played better for her as a regular action flick.
Unfortunately, it goes for the gothic tones of The Crow, wrapped up in a neo-grindhouse style and Love is less successful when she shifts into her revenge character. The depth she had begun to bring to the role vanishes into a one note cipher, who's either silent or shouting in a monotone, dressed in a costume that overwhelms the actress. Continually scowling adds years to her and the combination of silhouetted shots and feathered outfit makes her look huge, like the later Tura Satana playing a mysterious Angel of Death. She's not the only one stuck in an unflattering getup. Shane Dean is great at moody, pissy and sarcastic, but as Colorado, the next on her list, he's like a cartoon character. Whenever he's in thug company, like a crazy torture scene, he and his fellow henchmen turn into the hyenas from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the inappropriate laughter echoing in my brain. When he's solo, running his gambling joint, he's every cliché a thug can be: a drug addled shouty mess sponsored by the word 'bitch'. He's better than he's given.

And so the film runs on. If you've seen The Crow, you're going to have a really strong idea of how it goes, merely phrased more as a grindhouse flick than a moody gothic tale. If you haven't, then it still won't be too surprising but you'll notice the continuity issues more, because when Skiba shuffled his Crow cards, he lost a few that connected things together. For my part, I enjoyed the wide cast of strong local actors a lot. Even if Laurie Love was better as the trainee than the vengeful killer, she looks great splattered with blood and she gets a few decent fight scenes. As Pretty Boy, Aaron Neal Trout is a believable Irish thug, his backward baseball cap looking like a beanie. Kevin Tye is less believable as a South African and I still haven't figured out why he's even in the movie. The best thug is the one who isn't local, Tony Mandarich, who's frickin' huge and looks even bigger. He's a former offensive lineman in the NFL, no great actor but a very watchable character. All he needs to do is walk on screen, but he does more than that.

Of course, local actors really dominate the smaller parts. Backstage at the stripjoint, we see Windy West topless, which provides two powerful reasons for locals to seek out the movie. Melissa Ann Marie Farley is topless too, when she's not snorting coke. As Colorado's bouncer, James Ray impresses with his nervous routine which is surprisingly good, given how confident he is and usually plays. Rick Dyer is a wild tattoo artist. Blink and you'll miss Kimber Leigh in William Katt's pawn shop. The most fun local scene is the one where a string of mercenaries stride down a corridor and only one isn't familiar. They're Steve Dorssom, Bill Connor, Bill Wetherill, Chris Sheffield and Jax Menez, the one I didn't recognise. That's a lot of talent to relegate to such minor roles, where few get opportunities like Shane Dean with tiger venom coursing through his veins, Laurie Love splattered in blood or Brian Ames really acting when he confronts William Katt. One strong performance is enough for this movie though, which has completely different goals.

This is all about updating The Crow to a neo-grindhouse aesthetic, and Skiba could have done a lot worse at that. I don't buy the argument that plotholes are required for modern grindhouse movies just because the films they pay homage to had them and The Crow was a lot tighter than this. Fred Williamson gets to play himself yet again, which makes him happy, and have his name prominently featured on the poster, which makes local filmmakers happy. William Katt is a bonus on that front, proof that Arizona can make features with major names in that have capable sound and visuals. And really, with Windy West's boobs, Shane Dean's bitching and Tony Mandarich's bulk all on show, what more do we need that isn't covered by Laurie Love's pretty painted bullets and a lashing or six of blood? This covers all the bases it needs to cover, even if it would have played better with some originality. I don't buy the argument that grindhouse stories can't say something new either and this one is just a fair retelling of a twenty year old story.

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