Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: Elite

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Directed by Mark Cantu      
Live Wire Films / Lost Empire Films / MVD Visual
90 minutes, 2017

It’s not often I get to review a straight-out action film with no horror involved, so I was glad to get the opportunity with this military crime drama focusing on drug dealing gangs, and specifically the take-down of a drug lord from down South of the Border. Yes, this is a potential Trump wet dream where the bad guy is from Meh-hee-ko (a bad hombre), and it’s the special forces of the United States that is out to take him down.

Allison Gregory
Most action films of this type follow an almost regimented formula (at least until the reveal), and this one is no exception. After a prolog about a mission gone bad where the good guys lose, we pick up the story two years later with a new Naval Covert Ops Command Special Agent and “registered Republican,” Abbey Vaughn (the square-jawed Allison Gregory, rocking a Frances McDormand-meets-Erin R. Ryan look), who is brings retired Bourne-level super-agent Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarborough) out of retirement. He’s grumpy, he’s drunk, he’s sequestered himself in some far off locale in rural Texas, and he has a beard. Of course, he doesn’t want to come back, but events get him to shave his head and he’s back on point to take down the drug lord and his minions. This is a trope that has been overused a bit much, but it gets you to the point of action. And, being an action film, that’s the point, right?

Right off the bat, Vaughn shows herself to be a bit of an amateur (she’s no Clarice Starling), such as entering a bad-guy bar solo, without back-up. Whenever I see this done on a TV show, where the lone cop/good guy runs into a situation where they should just wait until back-up arrives, I think, “This character is an ass, and deserves to die.” But they don’t. Vaughn seems to get roughed up or threatened somewhat regularly early on (and it’s not hard to predict her family will be probably be put in danger at some point...I write this 17 minutes into the film, so I don’t know for certain yet). She’s gonna need big strong man Harrigan to rescue her, or at least be a mentor. You can tell this was written by dudes (Cantu and Scarborough) right off. I’m waiting for the mansplaining (it comes in at 50 minutes, FYI, but it’s acknowledged and tempered in a somewhat positive light, or possibly even mocked).

Also, just because Harrigan is the star (and co-writer), even though Vaughn’s name come first in the credits, it seems pretty ridiculous that for most of the film he’s the only one who can take care of himself. I mean, there is Vaughn and another (African-American male…from Brooklyn yet) agent (Shawn Brooks) who cower under a table while Harrigan takes care of a bunch of knife and gun-tottin’ thugs himself. This is a bit too Seagal / Van Damme / Rambo egocentric without the star power to back it up, in my opinion. More on this later.

What I also fine disconcerting is the weaponry and its use. Everyone has a gun, that’s no surprise, being law enforcement vs. drug gang (never mind that it’s Texas), but nearly all the firepower is hand guns, especially in the first two-thirds of the film. Drug cartels and enforcers would most likely have high powered assault rifles that fire multiple rounds per second, not bam…bam…bam. On top of that, nobody seems to hit very much (people or, say speeding away cars), so there is very little collateral damage, even from a couple of feet away. This is a bit of a throwback to the Schwarzenegger days where he would stand in the middle of a room with dozens of people firing at him, and he would kill with every shot while none hit him. Here, even Harrigan’s (and Vaughn’s) guns tend to miss, despite multiple rounds. And yet he tries to tell Vaughn how to shoot though she’s supposedly a marksperson. The feminist side of me is getting grumpy.

Jason Scarborough
I was trying to figure out the political stance of the film. While it’s quite heteronormative, at the same time there are some swipes at conservative politicians, but also seems to fall in line with the present administration’s attitudes about “bad” people coming from Mexico and the belief that they bring crime with them (or the desire to do so). Perhaps it’s my own prejudice that sees that, being suspicious as this is from (and filmed in) San Antonio, Texas. I’m not sure, but I can easily see both sides of the liberal/conservative spectrum either questioning some parts of this, or agreeing with others.

One of the enforcers for the cartel is played by WWE-wrestler Mike Dell, who is also known as Dr. Corbett. He handily kills people with his bare hands. You know at some point, as this is the paradigm they are following, he is going to cross fists with Harrigan. Even before it happens, I’m going to guess that Harrigan starts by losing, and then wins. Won’t say if it’s true or not, you’ll have to watch for yourself.

Towards the end of the film, Vaughn becomes stronger after a personal loss, and ends up mostly being able to handle herself. However, there is one other core character I would like to talk about at this point, a cyber babe named Jazz (Ione Europa Rousseau) who is sort of a more punk version of the Abby Sciuto character from NCIS. At first they have her playing the doofy Joe Pesci role from Lethal Weapon 2 (etc.), even giving her the “Do I get a badge/gun?” lines, but she is my favorite here, and proves that she can kick frickin’ ass. I want to see a film of just the background story of her character. Jazz is arguably by far the most interesting and nuanced one here. Other standouts are Jason Lee Boyson as capo Guapo; his being a stand-up comic certainly helps with his line delivery, and James C. Leary as Benedict (who was a semi-regular on the later-seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer under tons of make-up).

Generally, the acting is decent, and when actually connecting, the kills look pretty good. Most of the hand fights are pretty good (the villains are usually MMA fighters in their non-film lives), especially Mills, who comes across as quiet and intense, stealing the camera’s view whenever he’s onscreen.

One of the things I appreciate is that while a lot of the film’s story is formulaic, the expected double crosses actually worked really well (that they happen, not who they are), and even though I wondered about it at some point, it still managed to take me a bit by surprise because I was expecting it to be one of two people, and it was neither.

Other than three enjoyable trailers from LWF, the only extra is a full-length commentary with Cantu, Scarborough, and Gregory that while not brilliant, is chock full of information about the creation of the story, certain scenes, and fun anecdotes. It’s the bad jokes and the occasional talking-over that puts a slight damper on it. Still, I would recommend the listen if you enjoy the film.

Despite it all, this is actually a decent watch for this genre, either in spite of or because of it being formulaic. The story may have holes, but the basic premise works due to it following so close to the rules. Hell, it actually makes more sense than most of anything with Seagal or Van Damme, which are just ego pieces. This can’t rely on that, so it needs to be a bit stronger, and it is that. For a straight-out action film, the skin is more important than the bones, meaning that the action/what you see, trumps out the basic story/structure. This fits the menu quite well for a nice fast paced, fast food film.


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