Saturday, 18 July 2015

Genre and Perspective

Those that have studied film at even a basic level will understand how genre theory is a somewhat flexible system. It's a form of labelling movies based on their prevailing tropes that serves really only to make conversations easier or to manage audience expectations more effectively. Where it fails as a precise science is when you start thinking about sub-genres, modes, and hybrids and the conventions that separate them. How many vampires can you add to a western before it becomes a horror movie? Although conventions tend to be the things that identify what genre is a best fit for a movie there are some genres that are separated merely by who's perspective we asked to view events from.

The slasher and revenge thriller sub-genres are separated from each other only by who we are asked to empathise with. The basic requirements are the same for both: someone is wronged by a group and sets about exacting a violent revenge. There are some other conventional distinctions, such as the slasher killer only using bladed weapons and usually hiding a disfigured face behind a mask of some kind, but ultimately it’s the same engine driving the car.

Imagine if in I Know What You Did Last Summer the killer was actually on his way to see his daughter before being run over. Imagine the teenagers were obnoxious bullies, maybe even criminals. These changes would be enough to switch our point of identification so that we would empathise (not necessarily condone) the killer. Then by following the killer as he sets up his various traps and attacks we would be firmly be in revenge movie territory even if the horror conventions and iconography were kept. It works the other way as well. If you take any revenge movie you can think of and make the event that spurs the killer accidental, then show events from the point of view of those responsible you would end up with a slasher movie. Superficiality aside, how different really is Jason Vorhees from Paul Kersey?

This switch of perspective also seems to work when transitioning between superhero and classic monster movies. Again, the core of the narrative is the same across both: A person is inflicted with a strange condition due to some scientific or supernatural event and has to come to terms with their newfound state. In superhero movies, the hero learns to control their powers and use them for good while in the body/monster horror the protagonist loses control and uses them for evil. 

Or course this can have a downside as not knowing exactly what type of story you want to tell can dilute the narrative. Dracula Untold is a film that commits to neither superhero nor monster movie. Dracula is still the blood-drinking, impaling son-of-a-bitch we all love to hate but these acts are half-heartedly justified. And so despite containing conventions and sequences inseparable from monster flicks the attempted positioning of Dracula as a superhero, complete with a ‘learning his new powers’ sequence, mentor trope and kryptonite style weakness, causes the film to never feel like a horror movie while never giving you someone truly heroic to root for.

Ultimately whether the protagonist is righteous enough to follow, in the cases above, will decide the genre of movie. Just make sure you fully commit otherwise your audience won’t know who they are supposed to be rooting for.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Icons of the Overlooked #13: Jeff Speakman

A turning point in my appreciation of film was the day my relatives got satellite TV. Suddenly I was able to break the shackles of four channel UK television and, armed only with an E240 VHS cassette, spearhead my own little revolution against prescriptive programming. I would ask my relatives to record movies that I had selected from the TV guide and often requested they just leave the tape going all night. That way the main feature would be a movie I was expecting while the follow-up would be a lucky dip of sorts. It was this method that gave me my first exposure to what I thought, at the time, was an exciting martial arts discovery.

The Perfect Weapon (1991) was a fairly no-nonsense, stripped down martial arts story about a young boy with rage issues accidentally killing the school quarterback and returning after exile to rekindle his relationship with his brother while simultaneously getting mixed up in a Chinatown protection racket. The story wasn't all that, the stakes pretty small and the production pretty low rent (most of the film looks like it was shot on sets that make most multi-camera sitcoms look like The Lord of the Rings). But the thing that stood out from all of this was star Jeff Speakman.

If Uncle Sam set about creating his own master race I'd imagine it would look like Speakman. Bestowed with a square-jawed head, an immaculate stubble and a hair cut just the right side of mullet Speakman looked like he should have been advertising cigarettes in a sunset-drenched ranch yet he was able to execute complex and interesting martial arts moves on screen convincingly. Irrespective of its merits in real life situations, Kenpo (his particular style) was great for action cinema. Like Seagal's style this
looked like it might actually work yet Speakman was a little more agile than he, able to pull of the slow-motion reverse-roundhouses synonymous with Van Damme. To this day I remember being impressed that Speakman could leap into the air and kick well above his head while dripping in body oil and vacuum-packed in denim. Leading man looks and a martial arts style that was both convincing and stylised suggested Speakman had the chops for action movies and Weapon, though far from perfect, showcased his skill set expertly.

The movie's efficiency works in its favour as the fights come quickly and often and are punctuated with satisfyingly stylised sound effects. And it doesn't hurt that the movie is packed with a mini-Expendables of supporting actors such as Mako, James Hong, Professor Toru Tanaka and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa.

I enjoyed Speakman's debut enough to request Street Knight (1993) as my main recording when I spotted it in the schedule. In this Speakman plays a washed up cop haunted by a hostage situation gone wrong. He's drawn back into action when a missing child he offers to track down ends up at the centre of a plot by a rogue black ops team to manipulate gang warfare in LA. It's an ambitious plot and certainly makes for a more engaging story but all that set-up means it takes ages for any real action to kick in. It's more cinematic than Weapon and has some great kills, most notably going to town on a guy with a couple of spanners and interrogating some poor dude by putting a gun in his mouth and shooting through his head at an oncoming assailant.

Despite this and a traditional scenery-chewing Shakespeare-spouting British villain the film suffers from a slow build up and a less than explosive finale. Yet for a second movie it was still pretty good and showed a progression in ambition and production. And then Speakman vanished from the TV guide. Decades went by without his squinty lumberjack-shirted fisticuffs in my life and, despite briefly pondering how he would have made a really good Johnny Cage in the Mortal Kombat movie he largely faded from memory. Sometime last year he popped back into my consciousness and it inspired me to track down some more of his movies and see whether that upward trajectory continued. Spoiler alert: no it fucking didn't.

Based on the select films I have seen the next phase of Speakman's oeuvre falls into two categories:

1. Ambitious but Absent

These films reflect the upward trend displayed by Street Knight in that they either display an increase in budget or reflect an attempt to stand out from the crowd. Despite being marketed as a Speakman movie, The Expert (1995) sees him sharing the lead with James Brolin. Speakman's role is somewhat supportive and his action moments are fine but limited. It is, however, his most cinematic movie. Scorpio One (1998) is a kind of Die Hard (well, Executive Decision) in space. The concept out-weighs the cheapness but again Speakman and his martial arts ability are sidelined.

2. Action-packed but Cheap

These movies are loaded with action, fights and often cool car chases but suffer from a complete lack of funds. Running Red (1999) sees Speakman as an ex-Russian solider who has relocated to LA to start a family but is pulled back into an assassination plot by former comrades. This actually has an engaging plot, some nice miniature work at the beginning, an awesome car chase and some interesting action. Unfortunately it looks like a daytime soap opera. Worse still, the central bus chase is just the footage from Red Heat with shots of Speakman at a steering wheel spliced in. This in turn made me question whether any of the big moments were genuine or just stolen from other movies. It's lack of budget also creeps into the ending that falls completely flat.

This is also the case with Land of the Free (1998). Here Speakman plays an utterly lethal political campaign manager (?) who finds his boss, played by William Shatner, is actually fronting some militant organisation. Speakman goes into witness protection and is hunted by the Shat's goons. There is a brilliantly staged car chase and a couple of competent shoot-outs but it looks just as crap as Running Red, suffers from the same duff ending (The climax is Speakman going mano-a-mano against 90's Shatner) while the spectre of stolen footage still lingers (A cool helicopter explosion also popped up in Cyber Tracker, the movie I watched directly after Land of The Free).

So what was the problem? Why after a couple of strong starts was Speakman either sidelined or saddled with piss-weak Frankensteined shit? The guy was photogenic, had a recognisable and interesting martial arts style and although by no means an actor was charming and charismatic. He was, without doubt, an 'all-American' (in the classic, non-progressive sense) action hero.

And that may be the problem. Speakman joins the exclusive club (alongside actors such as Willis, Norris, Bosworth, etc) of caucasian, American-born male action stars of the era. It would appear, rather surprisingly, that early 90's action was a pretty diverse genre (Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Gruner, Norton, Snipes, Blanks, Wilson, Rothrock). Even Stallone went to great efforts to mangle dialogue like he had a thick European accent. Maybe Speakman played a Russian in Running Red to try and cut in on some of that action?

What I do know is that Speakman got off to a pretty good start but took a real nose dive. Of course there are a number of movies I haven't seen, most notably Timelock (where he plays a scarred space villain) but I can't imagine many of them bucking the trend. Ultimately there are only two films I'd actually recommend seeking out. The Perfect Weapon is far from the perfect movie but is probably the best showcase for his abilities while The Expert is actually a pretty decent film as long as you're not expecting a full-on martial arts movie.

This article is by no means suggesting Speakman was criminally overlooked. In fact Speakman's ideal place was in the direct to video action market. Even within that narrow bracket, though, Speakman deserved some better projects. Or at least some more liberally budgeted ones.