Lost Phoenix

Fairly often I get emails from people who made low budget movies, sometimes they seem to be familiar with me, sometimes they don’t, but they’re trying to do the very hard work of getting people to notice their needle out there in the haystack of what’s available. I sincerely wish every one of them well, but I don’t take very many of them up on it. My fear is that 99.9% of the time it’s not gonna be some hidden gem, or even some crazy failure, it’s just gonna be okay for what it is. And I know I’ll feel bad for them and want to say nice things, but what good does it do them for a niche critic like me to be nice about their movie being okay? I don’t know.

But this particular one, LOST PHOENIX, I decided to watch. After a long time. I was kind of slow about it. But writer/director James Couche (who is also editor and fight choreographer) had a good pitch for it: it’s his micro budget take on “90s mid-budget action movies with shades of inspiration from Hong Kong thrillers.” He also mentioned EL MARIACHI as an inspiration, production-wise. But it takes place in September 2020, and was shot from October 2020 through October 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. I know there are a ton of COVID horror movies shot out in the woods somewhere while people were bored, but this is the first time I heard of an action one.I’m not gonna claim LOST PHOENIX is one of the great indie action movies, but I enjoyed it in the spirit of “let’s see what these guys can pull off.” And they pulled off quite a bit. If you’d like to watch along at home, you can see it on Tubi or rent or buy it on Amazon, Google Play or Youtube.

It begins in a hospital room. Well, it looks more like somebody’s house, but there’s a hospital bed, at least. And in that bed a mysterious man (Wan Dral) wakes up from a coma with no idea what’s going on or who he is. Dr. Anya Sheridan (Tatjana Shields) tells him she named him Joe, after her grandpa, so clearly she’s fond of him. That’s why she warns him he better run when someone calls Homeland Security on him.

“They think I’m a terrorist?”

“They think you’re illegal.”

(He has a thick accent that we’re later told comes from Haiti.)

When an ICE agent (Minh Huynh) comes in, it turns into a martial arts scuffle, so it’s a BOURNE IDENTITY situation here. Whoever he is, he knows how to fight. He wins, and flees.

Months later he’s settled in, working in the thriving food delivery industry, he has a friendly landlord named Barbara (Lesa Cole) who comes over and drinks beer with him in the morning. I guess they must be part of each other’s bubble.

One night a private detective (Justin Meyer) claims to have found information about Joe’s identity. They meet in public while a BLM protest is going on nearby. Of course we recognize the artificiality of hearing the chants in the distance, but I was impressed with how real protest footage is worked into the movie. Joe looks over the detective’s documents, senses that they’re fake, and the next thing you know he’s in a fight to the death with the supposed detective. And the next thing after that the guy gets shot dead by a sniper.

Joe looks up to the building the shots came from, makes a telephone gesture with his hand, slowly reaches for his cell phone, and holds it up so the shooter can see his phone number through their scope. Sure enough, the phone rings.

Okay, first of all I thought this was a really cool move, and second I thought it was really funny that he answered “Hello?” as if he didn’t know who was calling. Anyway, he tells Layla (Eliza Kelley, “Doctor,” one episode of House of Cards) about his predicament, and convinces her not to kill him, at least for now. It turns out she’s on a revenge mission against people from his past, and they become hesitant allies. He also befriends Oz (Josh Videna), a guy who tries to sell him meth, ends up selling him a gun, soon dies heroically to save him. Not many of us made friends like that during lockdown.

The guys Joe needs to look out for are a group called the Absolvers, formerly a Blackwater type mercenary group “owned by some rich asshat named Richard Talbott” (David Norton, also assistant fight choreographer and associate producer), led by Gunnar (Marcus Lawrence), with dirty work done by an impressive muscle guy named Roman (Tom Strong) and a younger guy with long dreads named Seth (Rasheed Robinson). They wear skull-printed gaiters, like some people did in that period after we realized we needed face covering but before we realized those weren’t good enough. Anyway their mercenary group has evolved into terrorist action. They set off a car bomb near the protest to make cops go on “a 24-7 ass-kicking marathon.”

The reason Joe gets involved in all this is that they see him and know him as Isaac, a former member of their group they thought was dead. There’s alot of “Sonofabitch. He is alive” talk and he ends up fighting them in various locations. There’s a hammer and pipe vs. ax fight in a garage, and a climactic sword duel in a park. None of these actors have other credits, but they seem to have some sort of martial arts experience, and pull off some pleasingly acrobatic moves. Dral as Joe/Isaac has some good, limber kicks, Robinson as Seth does a backwards handspring face kick, and Couche knows which ones to show in slow motion.

He also respects the power of slo-mo walking and spinning around with guns – I’m glad there are still filmmakers with John Woo on their minds.

Oh, also the classic “walking slow motion in front of a fiery explosion” shot. Should be required in all movies.

For the most part the acting is pretty good by getting-your-friends-to-star-in-your-movie standards, but not quite enough to sell all of the smart ass banter and merc lingo. One part that made me laugh, maybe unintentionally, but I still liked it, is when Joe is fighting Seth and has a perfectly timed one-liner I thought I saw coming. Seth seems to be near victory, he has Joe knocked down, but Joe says “I still have something you don’t.”

“What?” Seth scoffs. “Wisdom?”

Joe picks up a big rock that’s on the ground, beans him right on the head with it and I’m already laughing imagining him say “a rock.”

Instead he says “situational awareness,” dragging out each syllable awkwardly. Okay, yeah, that’s accurate. Awareness of the situation that you have a rock.

In the grand tradition of UNDER SIEGE, etc., when Joe faces down his nemesis he gets a speech about “we are so much more alike than you can imagine.” Talbott talks about “the world falling around us” and “the sheep” and says “This new America, it’s an abomination” that “needs to be burned to the ground so it can be reborn.” I guess there are different ways you could interpret this villain’s political persuasion, but obviously these guys were soldiers for hire, they purposely enflamed police to go after protesters, and Gunnar uses Trump’s phrase “shithole country” to describe Haiti, so I’m gonna assume I don’t agree with them on much.

At any rate, Joe does kind of what the protesters were asking of us as a society: he abandons his old ways, finds a non-violent approach to life, even adopts his amnesia name so he’s not that killer anymore. So I think that’s what’s special about LOST PHOENIX – it acts as a 2020 time capsule, with its characters wearing masks to avoid COVID, its real footage of protests and riot police (including at least one drone shot!?), its fictionalized references to some of the tensions in the country at that time, including having the hero beat up an ICE agent. And just as a micro budget action movie it’s impressive how many scenes take place in big outdoor city locations without anybody around, which I assume is a result of shooting when most people were still staying indoors, but if not it’s a good depiction of that time.

So good job James, thanks for sending me the movie, good luck building on this in your future endeavors (hopefully it won’t require a global crisis to happen).

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 28th, 2024 at 4:55 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Responses to “Lost Phoenix”

  1. was this filmed in Denver or Virignia?

  2. The director told me he’s based in Denver, and also that it was filmed in Richmond. I’ve never been to either, but based on quick research Richmond does have a canal like in the movie and a Byrd Street as seen on the sign there. Did I mix it up somewhere?

  3. You mention Denver in the FB and Twitter posts and then never mention Denver in the review at all but say Virginia which is why I was confused.

  4. Haha, let me clear up the confusion. This film was shot in Richmond, VA but I’ve since relocated to Denver, CO.
    Thanks again for taking the time to watch and review Lost Phoenix. It’s my first feature film and I’m champing at the bit to make another one and put all I’ve learned into practice!

  5. Thanks for the correction, Sternshein. I don’t generally look at Facebook other than to post links, so I didn’t see your comment until I went to edit the post just now.

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