There are innumerable dreams to which humanity aspires: feeding the hungry, building racial harmony, inventing comfortable shoes that also look cool, ending war, etc. Of these goals, the one we’ve come closest to achieving is “a female EXPENDABLES.” But it takes small steps to make big ones.
This was a concept that guys like us were already discussing and backseat casting before the movie news told us it was really in the works. In fact there are two such movies still in development. There’s the one from the producers of the male EXPENDABLES. It was announced before Rowdy Ronda Rousey was in part 3, so I don’t know if they plan to spin off from her character or not. From the sound of it it might not be worthy of a woman that tough. They’re calling it “EXPENDABELLES” and it’s from the director and the writers of LEGALLY BLOND. It was reported that they were trying to get Naomi Watts, Kate Beckinsale, Marcia Gay Harden, Li Bingbing and Mila Kunis. Sigourney Weaver turned it down. I’m gonna go ahead and write this one off.
The other one is from Adi Shankar, the face-paint wearing producer of DREDD and those “bootleg universe” shorts like Joseph Kahn’s POWER/RANGERS. This one reportedly stars Gina Carano (HAYWIRE, FURIOUS 6), Katee Sackhoff (RIDDICK) and maybe Sharni Vinson (YOU’RE NEXT, STEP UP 3), which is a promising start.
But leave it to Asylum, the studio that brought us SHARKNADO and I AM OMEGA, to have theirs already done and released before the other two even settle their casting. Admittedly this DTV female mercenary squad is light on marquee names, but it’s a good team. They have Zoë Bell (DEATH PROOF, THE BAYTOWN OUTLAWS, GAME OF DEATH), Kristanna Loken (TERMINATOR 3, S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT), Vivica A. Fox (KILL BILL, THE HARD CORPS, BLAST, SET IT OFF), and, uh, Nicole Bilderback (CLUELESS, BRING IT ON).
Recruiting them for their mission is the #1 female name in American martial arts movies of the ’90s, Cynthia Rothrock. On one hand, she only throws one punch here, zero kicks, and cynical tough talk like this has always been an awkward fit with her sweet demeanor. On the other hand the writers of EXPENDABELLES got private karate lessons and wrote a character for her, using her name, and the producers still didn’t want her in their Naomi Watts action vehicle. So respect for showing respect.
But the most crucial casting choice is Brigitte Nielsen (RED SONJA, COBRA, BEVERLY HILLS COP II) as the villain. This is a pretty good Fuck You Hollywood move: three of the female stars are in their fifties, and two of those are in on the action. The youngest is mid-thirties, unless you count the girls they’re rescuing. Anyone with a gun is a grown woman.
Anyway Nielsen plays Ulrika, who is described by a file we see onscreen as “extremely dangerous and ruthlessly cunning… one of Americas most most wanted war criminals.” We hear that “she’s completely paranoid about all men” but “her hate is unisex, she thinks women are weak and underestimates them,” so an all-female extraction squad seems like the best bet when she kidnaps the first daughter and holds her in a former Soviet prison called The Citadel.
“Holy fuck!” says Rothrock when she finds out about the kidnapping.
“Yeah, that about says it,” says her partner.
As she explains to the team: “The president’s daughter was kidnapped by an Amazonian she-bitch, and she has her hostage in some castle in the back woods of Shitholistan, and she wants us to prop her up as new head of state, and we’re gonna tell her to go to hell.”
She picks the team from ex-military women in prison and dangles the carrot of presidential pardons in front of them. They all have different specialties (for example Bilderback is an explosives expert and “self-styled techno-anarchist”) and backstories, which Rothrock recites to them. I guess they all enjoy hearing about themselves, because they just let her tell them what they already know. It’s clunky, but I enjoy this trope, and there’s a great gimmick at the end. When Bell asks “When do we start?” she says “We already have,” and pulls up a shade – they’re not in an interrogation room, they’re on a plane!
I can’t lie, there’s an air of crappiness to the whole production. Not just the kind of movie that makes a computer beeping noise when text goes on the screen, but also the kind where you can notice a plastic knife bending when it’s held against a throat. And while guys like George Miller or even young Robert Rodriguez were able to make great looking, cinematic movies on low budgets back in the celluloid days, Asylum just has a generic, style-free SyFy Channel look to all of their crap. There doesn’t seem to be a strong vision, or maybe even a vision at all, behind what they’re doing. Most emblematic of that is the inexcusable choice to use the old “this is actually a comic book!” credit cliche. I hate movies that do this even when they take the time to have someone trace over freeze frames from the movie to make the fake comic panels, but for this one they didn’t even bother with that, they just use a Photoshop filter.
I don’t know if they are aware of this, but in the year of 2015, there are actually comic book movies. Lots of them.
Actually, I do know they’re aware of it, because this same director and company made ALMIGHTY THOR to cash in on THOR. So everybody including them has seen comic book movies and knows what they are. This is not one of them and is not like a comic book at all. In fact, it’s obviously intended as a throwback to ’80s action movies. Why mix these things up? It makes no sense.
Furthermore, who the fuck would read a comic book like this? It looks like shit, it’s not a real drawing like CREEPSHOW, or even a traced over photo like BAYTOWN OUTLAWS, it’s screen grabs run through a Photoshop filter. And it’s just the first shots of some of the scenes, with no text. It doesn’t tell a story or show the cool shots.
Look at that first panel, it’s a “drawing” of a flower vase. Even in the movie it doesn’t have meaning, it’s just something that the camera starts on before panning to Rothrock being awoken by her phone. So why is that a comic book panel? Who thought this was a good idea? Why didn’t everybody else stop them?
I know you are The Asylum, but have some pride. Have some dignity. This actually took more effort than making it not this crappy. Somebody went out of their way and spent an extra shift on the computer making the movie much worse.
All that aside, I found MERCENARIES surprisingly enjoyable. It’s really a Zoë Bell vehicle more than anything, and I liked it better than her other post-DEATH PROOF starring roles. She does an American accent in this one, by the way, which is fine but unnecessary in my opinion, even though she plays a veteran of the conflict in Wazaristan.
We have the usual problems of fast cuts and shaky too-close cameras, but Bell does get to beat up a bunch of dudes, jump over some things, etc., sometimes coherently, sometimes even in slow motion. They’re all kind of dressed like Sarah Connor, but she’s the most Sarah Connor of the bunch.
As in almost all female action movies, including her own RAZE, she has a part where the facade cracks and she cries about a tragic thing that happens. And I’m still torn about this. It’s the great conundrum of women-driven action. Does it weaken her to reveal emotion that a male action hero would keep inside, or does it make her more human? Maybe we have to consider Sarah Connor as a comparison. I don’t think she’d cry like that. She’d only cry while yelling angrily, wouldn’t she? Maybe I’m forgetting a scene.
Anyway, a crying scene leads to full vengeance mode, or as she unfortunately calls it, “PMS from Hell.” The rest of the time Bilderback gets the “I’ll say the politically incorrect thing that you’d think I’d be too uncomfortable to say” lines, most of them dealing with Asian stereotypes.
Speaking of race, some might consider it ALP (A Little Problematic) that Fox is (SPOILER) the one who goes Cypher-from-THE-MATRIX and betrays the team. But I think it was the right decision for the movie because I think she’s by far the best actor in the cast to handle that type of turn. She knows how to play bitchy and make it fun. I should’ve been motherfucking Black Mamba. If nice girl Loken had to turn bad I don’t know if she’d seem convincing next to grouchy Fox over on the good guy side. One moment I like with Loken is the cute smile she has when they give her a gun.
Men are rightfully sidelined in this movie, but they have a few good ones for cannon fodder. Look at this asshole that’s Ulrika’s right hand man:
I kept thinking of him as hipster John Milius.
This has one element that’s crucial for this type of movie: a surprising number of little cool ideas here and there. I like that Rothrock says she had Fox’s trademark Glocks made into paper weights. I like that they’re counting on sniper Loken to use their last two rounds on guys with rocket launchers during a car chase. She gets a headshot with the first one but the last bullet hits its target in the shoulder… causing the guy to fall over and fire into his own car.
Also I like that they free a bunch of young sex slaves and they arm them all. That’s weird though because they’re immediately gunned down and left in a pile. The Mercenaries try to go beyond the perameters of their mission and do the right thing, but they get everybody killed. And nobody seems to care!
I don’t know if all this would be enough if it was a standard mediocre DTV villain, but Nielsen makes it a movie. Like her ROCKY IV co-star Dolph Lundgren she adds value just as a physical specimen. She’s tall and cartoonishly blond and playing Russian like Dolph too. But also I really dig her performance. There’s this great part where she does something really evil: the first daughter doesn’t do what she wants and she needs to keep her as a hostage so she punishes her by having her henchman slit another girl’s throat in front of her. After it’s done and she pushes the hostage back into lockup she leans against the wall, exhales, flips her hair, pulls up her lapels, then struts off. Just taking a moment to catch her breath and take pride in a job well done.
In the end the movie treats Ulrika like the Alien Queen. Somehow she gets onto their plane. They have to blow her out the airlock. Nuke the Citadel from orbit. That’s showing Nielsen some respect to put her on that level.
The surviving team members get a good exit too, strutting away bloody and sore. “It’s gotta be ladies night somewhere in this place.” I hope they really do go into a bar even though one of them has a bullet in her. They can take care of that later.
In a way MERCENARIES reminds me of the Boz vehicle MACH 2, in that it is too cheap-ass to feel like a legit action movie, but it does make effective use of a good b-movie cast and has some fun using beloved action tropes. In this case unconvincing digital explosions and blood replace obvious stock footage and miniatures. And I swear I made that connectdion before I remembered that the director is Christopher Douglas Olen Ray, son of MACH 2 director Fred Olen Ray.
I think we as a civilization can do better than this. But until then, at least we did this good.
1. In KILL BILL VOLUME 1 Fox’s stunt double fought against Bell, who was the stunt double for Uma Thurman.
2. Thurman and Fox were both in BATMAN AND ROBIN, where Fox was a sidekick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who Loken fought against in TERMINATOR 3.
3. In MERCENARIES Fox is announcing what she plans to do with all her money and mentions that she “Might even fuck George Clooney,” another BATMAN AND ROBIN co-star. Maybe he’ll be in part 2.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.