The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Half the Battle at ActionFest – Round 2

Andrew Kemp keeps rolling with the punches at ActionFest. Read Round 1 here.

THE DIFFERENCE

Ever notice that internet critics tend to respect and support action movies, while print critics treat them like the fish in yesterday’s newspaper? There’s been a significant shift over the last decade in the nature of film criticism, and while people may debate the merits of that, I think it’s at least pretty clear why it’s happening. Most internet critics were born post-1975, grew up with home video, and our relationship with science fiction and fantasy is unlike any generation that came before us. Video allowed the fanboy generation to first repeat the viewing experience, and then to fetishize it. Everyone knows the canon: Star Wars, Aliens, Die Hard. (Or, for Erik, Total Recall and Commando.) We watched until we saw past the stunts and fell in love with the craft behind them. Action movies are the blood pumping in our film nerd hearts, and although many of us developed tastes closer to Ozu than Ong-bak, we retained our respect for the genre. We know the potential impact of good fantasy action. We know it’s more than kid’s stuff.

I mention this because ActionFest is just lousy with film nerds. We have a type, and I know my own—overworked eyes squinting behind thick glasses; bellies like buckwheat pillows; skin shining like fluorescent lights; beards that know no comb. I’m not making fun, for truly I’d be mocking myself. Our particular shapes are merit badges. We weren’t born this way; we were forged to spec, the inevitable result of years spent sitting in the dark, staring at sheets of light.

Movies are wish fulfillment, and action movies are 90-proof. The men are ripped, the women are willing, and power hangs from every holster. ActionFest is a miracle place where hulking film heroes mingle with the movie nerds, the equivalent of pro athletes sharing beers with a rotisserie league. ActionFest is where fight choreographers can get standing ovations, where car crashes are bigger stars than the actors who are(n’t) in them, and where a movie called Bail Enforcers puts a doughboy like me in the same breathing space as a wrestling goddess. But first…

BATTLE ROYALE

I never gave Erik a choice. We were seeing Battle Royale. Come hell, high water, or a hostage situation with only one good cop between us and total destruction, we were seeing Battle Royale.

Battle Royale isn’t a new film, and I had to skip some interesting new titles to buy a ticket, but it was on my short list of embarrassing “unseens.” We all have a list, the movies that have eluded us for years with no explanation, the ones that we feel we MUST see to retain our street credibility. ActionFest gave me a chance to check this particular box, and on the big-screen! No regrets.

What can I say about Battle Royale? It’s a slam-dunk classic, a perfect premise deftly guided by Kenji Fukasaku, a veteran of Japanese gangster cinema. The film is a cult hit not just for its violence, but because it’s directed by such a confident hand.

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s about a government program designed scare teens into obedience by forcing a random class of students to fight to the death on a deserted island. The program’s purpose is vague—can it be an effective deterrent if the teens have never heard of it?—but the results are grisly. The film is often read as a warning to the Japanese youth, but I saw it from the opposite direction. Who are the role models in this society? The main teen hero’s father is a pathetic figure, hanging himself in his underwear when he can’t find a job. Several students are from an orphanage. The kids’ former teacher facilitates the game, nonplussed at all the death, and even dishing out his own violent retribution when time allows. With role models like these, it’s little wonder that this fictional Japan has become a nation of delinquents.

One of the film’s pleasures is watching the children react to the game. Poles form between those who refuse to fight and those who transition easily into relentless death engines. I pitied one of the villains, a killer who survived a previous game and volunteered to return. I think I was meant to hate him, but all I could think about was how terribly this kid must hurt. The government forced him to kill, and now he replays the game to find death, either his or somebody else’s. The government deemed his life worthless, and he’s determined to sell at that price.

Erik—who usually bleeds only Predator-green—was a Battle Royale convert. He’s spent the last week searching online for quality editions of the film, finding little but frustration. When this movie finally releases officially in America, it will make a mint.

BAIL ENFORCERS

I call Erik the Patron Saint of Product Loyalty because his fandom never wavers. If he loved something once, then he loves it forever with zero diminishing returns, and there’s literally nothing else, anywhere, ever, that is as good as that which he loves, so why bother searching? Erik doesn’t watch pro wrestling, but he once enjoyed it, and so you can guess his opinion today. I had no difficulty, then, convincing him to sit through a dirt-cheap indie action movie from Toronto, because that movie was Bail Enforcers, starring Trish Stratus, former World Wrestling Entertainment “Diva.” Stratus was always one of the few women wrestlers who seemed to take the craft of wrestling as seriously as the show. She had talent, and so I was curious to see her transition to screen starlet. Even better, Stratus would be there for the world premiere.

She didn’t come alone. As we waited outside for the screening, I pulled out my phone to get a glance at the time. Erik leaned over to me and asked, “Did you get it?” Thinking he meant the time, I said “yes.” That’s when I dropped my phone and realized that I had been pointing the camera side at Edge, one of the WWE’s biggest draws. As he strode past me, I wondered if he thought I’d taken his picture and, if so, how much of a fanboy jerk he thought I was.

Stratus arrived to thunderous applause, looking fantastic in her retirement from the ring wars. She thanked the audience and pointed out several of her co-stars and the film’s director, also in attendance. Stratus was a total class act, and that goes for the on-screen product as well. She’s the film’s top attraction, but she allows room for her fellow actors to shine.

Bail Enforcers has about as much nuance as its title. The ActionFest literature refers to the film as lo-fi, which is a kind term for “homemade,” another low-rent video baby destined for a midnight cable or DTV release. Still, even if its theatrical odds are long, Bail Enforcers has its charms. The story follows a trio of bounty hunters who should have their licenses revoked. Stratus and her two partners (motor-mouthed Chase and granite-jawed hero Ridley) pick up a low-level bounty, but release him when he tips them to the whereabouts of a bigger payday, an ex-Mafia wise guy. When they pick him up, they quickly agree to a million dollar offer from the guy’s ex-boss, who wants prevent the wise guy from squealing to the cops. The deal goes wrong because, hey, good guys, and the rest is an extended gunfight/chase scene as the gang try to decide what to do while fending off mafia hit men who want to kill the rat.

Bail Enforcers won’t make anybody rich, but it holds together better than you might think. It was a smart idea to protect Stratus by surrounding her with a team, and the gang’s chemistry is one of the film’s strengths. There are legitimate laughs, most of them coming from actor Boomer Phillips (Chase), who rattles off winning one-liners as fast as he can think them up. If anybody can use Bail Enforcers as a launching pad, it might be him. Stratus, meanwhile, handles her many fight scenes with pro ease, but she has little to do when there are no asses in immediate need of kicking. The movie just doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. For example, although she’s clearly the team’s muscle, she still somehow winds up the hostage in the final scenes, dressed like a sexy schoolgirl and waiting for the men to resolve the gunfight.

After the screening, I took a moment to congratulate Frank J. Zupancic, who plays Ridley. His performance isn’t the strongest part of the film—he has a limited range, and a short list of facial expressions—but the camera loves him and he has the right role, grounding the team’s chemistry to keep it from spiraling out of control between the Stratus’s star power and Phillips’s anarchy. He seemed to soak up the moment, enjoying his time as a movie star at a festival devoted to exactly his kind of gig. He gave me an inspirational speech about how I can achieve all of my goals, even though I’d never bothered to tell him what my goals were, or even that I had any. It was a little surreal, and I realized that while the rotisserie league may worship the athlete, some athletes are grateful for the adoration. The road has two lanes.

In the midst of this conversation, I lost track of Stratus and Edge. I’d hoped to get a picture, a real one, for my nephew, the most enthusiastic wrestling fan I know, but they disappeared before I could ask. I guess they’d had as much adoration as they could stand.

48 hours after I failed to meet him at ActionFest, Edge walked into the ring on live television and retired. The rumor is that injuries had finally caught up with him. Another rumor said he had slowly lost feeling in his arms after years of abuse. The road has two lanes, but it has to end somewhere.

Next: Shotguns, swords, and a wrench blessed by God.

-Andrew Kemp

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Half the Battle at ActionFest – Round 2 + TIME