9.20.2013

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


PLOT THICKENER
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!

VERDICT
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.

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

4.5 / 7


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