Expect No Mercy (1995)

PLOT: An entrepreneurial madman is using a high-tech virtual reality program to build an army of assassins. Can the two agents charged with infiltrating his organization stop him before the company goes public with the inflated IPO price so typical of tech start-ups?

Director: Zale Dalen
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Wolf Larson, Laurie Holden, Anthony De Longis, Michael Blanks, Real Andrews, Sam Moses

A couple of Stanford Ph.D students felt that search engine results based on the number of times a word appeared on a page sucked; their alternative became Google. The seeds of Netflix were planted after Reed Hastings got pissed about having to pay $40 in late fees for a copy of Apollo 13. The tech sector is rife with stories of small improvements that led to huge, globally successful companies. The 1995 film Expect No Mercy takes a compelling look at how such technological developments gain traction, reach critical mass, and change human lives in meaningful ways. The movie’s villain is an even bigger asshole than Mark Zuckerberg.

People pay good money to attend the Virtual Arts Academy, a high-tech facility that uses virtual reality technology to turn normal humans into lethal fighting machines. By donning goofy headgear and shoulder pads, any average joe from your Tuesday night karate class can become an expert after two years of sparring with the program’s simulated “fighters,” each one more skilled than the one before it. Not content to merely collect tuition money, the Academy’s founder, Warbeck (Larson) is using some of his more advanced graduates for private aims informed by his global ambitions: he’s assembling an army of assassins to execute contract killings. As Warbeck asks during a wide-eyed rant to a colleague later on in the film, "if the government can kill, why can't I?" Starting with his most trusted students, the ring of assassins is a pilot program of sorts, not unlike Google Glass.

Working from the inside to bring Warbeck's empire down is Eric (Merhi) a lead trainer and self-described "hacker" who's trying to keep his true intentions concealed from fellow trainer and maybe-more-than-a-friend, Vicki (Holden). When the Federal Security Bureau sends in an technophobic fighter named Justin Vanier (Bily Blanks) to pose as a student, Eric might just have the partner he needs to finish the mission. Can Eric get access to the files he needs to bring the VAA down? Whose side is Vicki on? And what kind of conditioner does Warbeck use to maintain that majestic mane? Maybe it's just egg whites and coconut milk.

Admittedly, I went into this one with a cautious posture. Merhi's previous films have been enjoyable on some levels, but also fairly uneven, so you can imagine my surprise when the results were solid. Perhaps the biggest difference was the action, which was frequent and sometimes silly, but also fairly well choreographed. Fight scenes were faster, the moves were more fluid, the combinations were more technical, and there were more moves-per-shot than the usual Film One fare. There's even an extended shootout, and a brief car chase to switch things up. I also appreciated the improved chemistry between Blanks and Merhi. Their relationship lacks the usual reluctance and friction, but their differences are well established. Merhi plays the more uptight square whereas Blanks goes with the flow and has an irrational fear of computers. If you've never seen a character visibly repulsed by the appearance of a compact disc, you'll want to add this one to the watchlist.

In a role that was nearly offered to Gary Daniels, Wolf Larson is really entertaining as Warbeck. My general rule of thumb for martial arts b-movie villains is that they need to be presented as physical threats to the heroes, and their bad behavior needs to encompass more than just drug-dealing or being an old, rich, white guy. Not only does Warbeck get a climactic fight scene with one of the protagonists and provide a hammy YouTube-worthy rant, but his giant face is hung throughout the halls of the Academy campus as visual confirmation of his dickish megalomania. I don't know that Daniels would have been able to capture Warbeck's arrogance and self-satisfaction -- and I'm not saying Larson knocked it out of the park -- but it was a lot of fun watching him try.

The de facto leader of Warbeck's group of killers is Damian (De Longis), an expert with a bullwhip and a no-nonsense tough guy of the highest order. He's flanked by Spyder -- played by Michael Blanks in his only onscreen collaboration opposite brother Billy -- and iguana enthusiast Alexander (Williams) who brings his scaly pet to every job and exchanges uncomfortable kisses with him before the crew performs the hit. Other than being a good way to get salmonella this is the kind of odd character flourish that made so many of the movie's secondary characters compelling during their screen time.

For fans of The Walking Dead, this is a great opportunity to see a young Andrea Taggart on the screen as one of the Academy’s instructors. Do you think Laurie Holden has ever done a panel at Comic-Con and been asked, “what was it like to make out with Jalal Merhi?” Would she deny that the movie ever happened? Would she flip the table and angrily lunge at the audience member who asked the question? Would she compare Merhi’s breath to any particular foods? Merhi looks like a guy who would eat a lot of quinoa and kale chips, but who knows. These are the things that keep me up at night.

At least in terms of frequency of collaboration, actor Jalal Merhi’s favorite director is clearly Jalal Merhi; the pair has worked together a half-dozen times. Merhi’s directorial efforts have suffered, perhaps in part, due to his taking on too much of the workload (acting, directing, choreography). Uneven fight scenes, unemotional line delivery, and lulls in plot development have been just some of the results. These issues are either absent or minimized due to the solid direction of Zale Dalen, however. A veteran of CBC productions and director of the 1977 Canadian crime drama Skip Tracer, Dalen brings a steady hand that helps to elevate the production well above other films like it. The plot cooks, the action is well shot, and the characters are (sort of) believable. Apparently, Merhi handled the fight scenes as second unit director and Dalen directed everything else; is it any wonder that the fights are among the best in any Merhi movie?

On the heels of films like The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic, I’m sure the inclusion of computer-generated “virtual reality” imagery seemed like a good idea at the time. Then again, so was Crystal Pepsi. So was selling the farm for Beanie Babies. It’s not so much that the computer graphics are outdated, it’s that they’re silly sub-Tron dreck and they look awful. By all indications, they used the effects just because they could, which is consistently the worst reason to do something in a film. That said, it did give us the most popular image of Jalal Merhi on the Internet: his disembodied head floating in the ether of the digital universe. To the film's credit, the effects aren't nearly as terrible as the graphics in the film's accompanying Mortal-Kombat-ripoff computer game.

The shame of it is that I have no idea to whom we should point the giant finger of blame for this particular hot mess. Special effect supervisor Stan Zuwala? Eh, he worked on Death Wish V so he’s off the hook. Visual effect supervisor Francois Aubry? He has 37 credits to his name, so he probably knew his shit. Responsible for the “digital assembly” of the visual effects was George Kourounis, who never worked again in film. CIRCLE GETS THE SQUARE... thanks for nothing, G-Kour!

While I can’t proclaim that Expect No Mercy is the greatest Blanks-Merhi collaboration ever -- TC 2000 did happen, after all -- I can say without hesitation that this one achieves a campy, b-movie sense of fun better than any of their other films. While the outdated VR graphics might have you yearning for the glossy production values of Kasumi Ninja, the story moves at a good clip, the dastardly Warbeck joins the list of great martial arts b-movie villains, and the action is solid throughout. The best part: no Merhi banana hammock! Recommended.

DVD is available new or used on Amazon, EBay. Try it out on YouTube for a test drive.

4.5 / 7


Fist of Further Reading: The Death Rattle

This week finds us sharing a glistening, bicep-flexing embrace with Aaron from The Death Rattle and Mill Creeps podcast fame. I've known him for a few years now, and he's been a great advocate for my own writing as well as the work of everyone over at the terrific Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema. He writes, he podcasts, and I'm pretty sure he's a luchador on the weekends. His bread and butter is horror cinema but he's been known to throw on a denim jacket and some Otomix pants for the occasional martial arts b-movie review too.

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: That I have a tendency to be a bit rambly and take too long to get to the point. I can defend that by saying I try my best to paint a picture for whoever is reading my reviews, not just with words but with screenshots. I have a bad memory, so my blog is to mainly document the movies I watch so I can read my reviews a couple of years down the line and think "Oh, so that's what I thought of that movie!" But, while I'm at it, I try my best to sell people on the movies I cover, for better or worse.

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: The Top 10 Final Girls list I did with James Gracey of the Behind The Couch blog. I love slasher movies and I love strong female characters in genre films, so yeah. Speaking of Final Girls, I'm also proud of a double-feature review that I wrote of HALLOWEEN 4 and 5. It covers - for the most part - the arc of the Jamie Lloyd character from the HALLOWEEN series.

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: I honestly can't remember. The earliest movie I have memories of that would fall under the Fist of B-List umbrella would be AVENGING FORCE. I remember being drawn to that film because the VHS artwork was really cool, and the guys in masks reminded me of GI JOE characters or something. As far as legit "martial arts" movies, I can't say.

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: Both have individual traits that make them stand out from one another to me, but I gotta go with JCVD. He has more movies in his filmography that I consider favorites, and he hasn't become as much of a damaged shell of his former self as Seagal. Plus, he has an amazing ass.

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: I'd definitely go for the baseball bat. Nunchucks are out of the question because I'd probably cause more damage to myself than my enemies. Samurai swords are intimidating to me, so that wouldn't be my first choice either. Besides, you could do some serious damage with a baseball bat. I'd be like Dikembe Mutombo up in that mug. (He's a baseball player, right?) Oh, and you can bet that I'd be ganking me some of that Zubaz when it's all said and done.

L.A. Streetfighters / Low Blow (The Mill Creeps podcast)
American Kickboxer 1
Future Kick
Revenge of the Ninja
Deadbeat at Dawn


Fist of Further Reading: Chuck Norris Ate My Baby

After a long layoff, we're back with another installment of Fist of Further Reading, where we highlight a site, blog, or podcast that has similar cinematic leanings as Fist of B-List. You'll notice I've switched up the format; I'll be throwing five standard questions at the creator(s) and jumping out of the way as they kick the answers back at my head. Up to bat: Matt-suzaka, who runs the excellent genre film blog Chuck Norris Ate My Baby. Matt shares our love of Zubaz, wins Lammy awards, and usually rocks nothing but black silk underwear and a Members Only jacket.

Q: What is a first-time reader most likely to notice about your writing style?
A: I think that depends on what they read. I mostly do movie reviews, so depending on the movie, a review can either be humorous or serious in tone. For the most part, my more serious reviews are focused on characters and/or specific themes that certain movies might convey, whereas my humorous reviews are generally filled with ridiculous observations. However, any of the posts that I do write that aren’t movie review related are usually of a comedic tone, so I suppose that might be the most distinct aspect of my style that a new reader would notice. 

Q: Which of your posts or ongoing features will give readers the best feel for your site and movie fandom?
A: I actually believe the best way to get an idea of both my sense of humor and fandom would be found in my Dumpster Diving for Gold posts, which range from regular written blog posts to video blogs. With these posts/videos I focus on random movie related finds I make such as VHS tapes, DVDs and any other type of cool movie related items that I might come across on my adventures.

As for specific movie reviews that I think best express both my love of movies and my site would be recent-ish reviews for House at the End of the Street and 1978’s Youngblood. House at the End of the Street is definitely a prime example of my more sarcastic/humorous side, whereas Youngblood shows my more serious side. Both, however, are perfect examples of my sexy side.

Q: What was the first martial arts movie you remember seeing?
A: I suppose the key word here is “remember,” as I used to watch a lot of Kung Fu Theater as a kid, but I remember very little outside of some vague imagery of my physical surroundings. With that said, the first martial arts movie that I can confidently say that I remember seeing was one that likely left a memorable mark because of just how special of a film it is, and that would be Enter the Dragon. The impact that Enter the Dragon and especially Bruce Lee had on me at a very young age would create a ripple effect that has carried throughout my entire life. Lee’s influence on me as a film lover, a martial arts enthusiast and person is simply incredible, and I have a distinct feeling I am not alone.

Q: Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, and why?
A: This is a no brainer for me: it’s JCVD or GTFO. I do love me some Seagal (especially his knack for spotting crime using his Seagal-sense), but I’ve always been a Van Damme guy. Movies like Bloodsport, Double Impact, Kickboxer, and Universal Soldier were staples of my movie watching as a kid. Furthermore,  what he has done with the later half of his career is pretty impressive considering the rocky road he was traveling during the mid-point of his career.

Since making JCVD, in which he faced his demons head on in a career changing confessional scene, Van Damme’s career has really taken a turn for the better. The way he has embraced his age (as opposed to Seagal and his pitch black dye job) and his role as an action star and a personality has really shown in the films he is making now. There’s currently a pretty awesome little renaissance going on in the direct-to-video action market, and JCVD is right there on the front lines leading the troops. Also, black silk underwear. 

Q: You've encountered a gang of mean dudes in denim jackets and Zubaz pants in an empty warehouse. You can arm yourself with a samurai sword, nunchucks, a baseball bat, or whatever is in the mystery box (no guns). Which do you choose and why?
A: This is actually a much tougher decision than it seems, but no matter how long I ponder what weapon would best serve me in a battle against a group of Zubaz wearing punks, I find myself going back to the Samurai sword. I think what makes the Samurai sword such a viable weapon in a warehouse fight is just how much damage it can do to so many different thugs with very little effort on my part. You know, because I’m a master swordsman. A Samurai sword is light, it’s fast and it can cut through almost anything (including those pesky empty cardboard boxes), but most importantly, however, I look fucking hot when I use it, especially when I’m shirtless and covered in cocoa butter scented baby oil.



American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987)

PLOT: When Marines go missing from a military base in the Caribbean, two Army Rangers are brought in as reinforcements. Before they can help in the investigation, however, they must plaster the neighborhood with "LOST MARINES" posters and raise enough money for a $10,000 reward to incentivize the local population.

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Gary Conway, James Booth
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Larry Poindexter, Michelle Botes, Gary Conway, Jeff Celentano, Mike Stone, Ralph Draper

When I publicly acknowledged in my review of the first American Ninja movie that the entire series was a shameful blind spot, it felt as if a huge Dudikoff-sized weight had been lifted off my chest. Without any fears of sentimentality coloring my critique, I could enjoy these classic films on their own merits: the limp grasp of ninja mythology, the whiteboy-in-Eastern-philosophy adventuring, the frequent fight scenes, and the lasers -- my god, the lasers. I was apprehensive, still; to break the seal of reviewing the first film was daunting considering the sequels to come. As a general cinematic rule, sequels tend to diminish in quality, but as evidenced by franchises like No Retreat, No Surrender and Ring of Fire, that rule goes out the window with martial arts b-movies. More accurately, it gets jump-kicked through the window during a bar fight.

In this case, on the other side of that newly broken window is Steve James, and he's laughing and flexing all the while. Returning to the fray as Army Ranger Sgt. Curtis Jackson, he and Sgt. Joe Armstrong (Dudikoff) have recently been assigned to a Marine base to help protect the American embassy on an island in the Caribbean. Life is good for the local Marines. They surf, chase girls, get hammered, and due to some anti-American elements on the island, must rock Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts instead of their standard uniforms to blend in. Even the base's brash commanding officer, Capt. "Wild Bill" Woodward (Celentano) is dressed for a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Because of his culturally appropriated ninja-sense, Armstrong knows something is fishy right off the bat, and it's not the local shrimp tacos. (Shrimp are technically decapod crustaceans, not fish). Jackson and Armstrong are first invited to go water-skiing by a few of the dudes from the base. Guess what? There's no fucking life jackets. The boat mysteriously breaks down and drifts ashore to an isolated island beach. The shifty Marine is all, "oh, how strange... let's go swimming everybody" and Armstrong says "I'm afraid of sharks, I'll stay with the boat." Within moments, he's attacked by a gang of ninjas who throw every manner of ninja  weapon cliche at him: the spears, the confounding net, the stars, the swords. Even while dressed in a three-quarter-length wetsuit and white cross-trainers instead of his normal ninja gear, Armstrong prevails and the gang makes it safely back to base.

Even though Woodward has no idea what ninjas are (how typical), he grants Armstrong and Jackson a week to investigate further. They have a hunch that these ninjas may be related to a spate of kidnappings of Marines. Really, Joe? You think the random beach ninjas, kidnapped Marines, and shifty Marine who ran the boat ashore and into a sabotage might be connected? As it turns out, all of these things were mere coincidences and the kidnapped Marines were actually just busy with a bunch of sex workers, the ninjas were a local indigenous culture hostile to outsiders, and the shifty Marine was actually just a terrible driver. Kidding! Joe was totally right. A local heroin kingpin called The Lion (Conway) has been using a kidnapped biological engineer to create an army of ninjas out of kidnapped Marine DNA to protect his vast drug empire. Do you see why pro-lifers are so concerned about stem cell research? This is the shit that happens.

After exploring some super-serious dramatic territory with the first American Ninja, it was interesting to see that director Sam Firstenberg could lighten the tone with the second installment. The movie is zany throughout, and pretty much everyone got the memo. Dudikoff seems a little detached -- there's only so many Blue Steel glares I can tolerate -- and he makes some odd wardrobe choices like a leather jacket and jeans tucked into his boots. (We're in the Caribbean, mind you). James pretty much steals the show once again as Sgt. Curtis Jackson, so no surprises there. Mike Stone is pretty enjoyable as Lion's main muscle, Tojo Ken, and his build-up as the most threatening physical match for the heroes is well done, if completely illogical. (During quality assurance testing, he kills about 20 of the gang's own GMO ninjas). Jeff Celentano is a little stiff as Capt. Woodward, but sports a fine moustache and owns the best line of the film: "What is this? Ninjas? Drug pushers? My men getting kidnapped and murdered? This is really beginning to get on my tits." It's funny, because he doesn't actually have tits. If he does, they're pretty small.

While the movie treads a lot of the same action territory as the first installment -- heroes get jumped by ninjas, defeat ninjas handily, rinse, repeat -- there are some distinct differences. The most egregious is that Michael Dudikoff looks pretty awful in his fight scenes. A successful fight scene, in this humble writer’s opinion, requires that the stuntman act as if he’s getting hit, but also that the principal act as if he’s hitting him. Dudikoff acts like an interpretive dancer trying to complete a field sobriety test after a dozen Pina Coladas. When he’s not flailing, or throwing a weak kick, he’s doing movements without any regard for how the stuntman is moving with him. I counted at least three instances where he “threw” an opponent despite having no grip whatsoever on them. None of this is helped by the fact that Steve James brings intensity to his fight scenes, is deliberate but not stilted in his movements, and genuinely appears to be having a good time beating up those around him. It would be easy to point the finger at Dudikoff as a non-martial artist, but I think blame should be laid at the feet of Sam Firstenberg. The Koff looked passable in the first film, so what changed? One has to assume that director was lazy with the coverage and was forced to edit his way out of it.

Let’s recount: decent fights, a silly story, mostly unremarkable characters, and a lead actor who I may forever refuse to embrace as a martial arts action star. When all the critical elements are sort of neutral, your film would appear to be dead in the water, but you can still win a ton of points on overall form and pacing. I ultimately enjoyed the breezy runtime because there was always *something* happening: either a fight scene, a ridiculous plot point that moved the story forward, or some display of dated fashion sense out of a modern Williamsburg farmers market. While this film seemed to signal Dudikoff's waning interest in the franchise, the rest of the crew picks up the slack. Solid.

Wide and salty, like the Caribbean Sea. Amazon, Netflix, EBay.

4.5 / 7
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