Mercenaries (2014)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 11/16/14
Cast: Zoë Bell, Kristanna Loken, Nicole Bilderback, Vivica A. Fox, Brigitte Nielsen, Cynthia Rothrock

First of all, this is not a good movie and the three-star rating is overly generous, but it tickled a lot of my sweet spots and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Shortly after Sylvester Stallone proposed his all-female ensemble film "The Expendabelles," the low budget schlockmeisters at The Asylum beat him to the punch with their own take on the idea. The list of veteran female action stars is exceedingly short, but the film manages to put together an impressive cast. The President's daughter gets kidnapped by a vicious warlord named Ulrika (scary looking Brigitte Nielsen), and she orders the US to attack her enemies in return for the girl. For whatever contrived reasons, the CIA (led by Cynthia Rothrock) assembles a small team of dangerous female convicts to infiltrate Ulrika's compound in "shit-hole-istan" and rescue the girl. And they only have 48 hours to do so. The team consists of a demolitions expert (Nicole Bilderback), a sniper (Kristanna Loken), a former CIA agent gone rogue (Vivica A. Fox), and an ex-army soldier named Cassandra Clay (Zoë Bell). Against all odds, they get in, they kill a bunch of people, and they get out.

Much to my surprise, the film plays it totally straight and maintains a serious tone with a strong sense of urgency. All of the women do an excellent job and really get into their characters, and Brigitte Nielsen in particular looks like she's having a great time. However, it's Zoë Bell who is the star of the show, and she gets the most screen time and the largest helping of action. She delivers an impressively believable performance both physically and emotionally, and moves with the grace and agility of a predatory animal. Kristanna Loken also gives a strong performance as a tough gal with a nicely subtle hint of emotional angst. Nicole Bilderback is the smarty-pants of the group and gets stuck with all of the sarcastic, wise-cracking dialog, but she backs up her words with action. And Vivica A. Fox is just a mean, bad-ass bitch. The only real disappointment is Cynthia Rothrock, whose delivery is a bit flat and has no action scenes to speak of.

Apart from the delightful cast, the film's greatest strength is that it takes itself seriously and doesn't belittle or degrade any of the women with sexist dialog and misogynistic bullshit. They are recognized and treated as a dangerous team and they have nothing to prove to anyone. Having a female villain helps, because that puts all of the primaries on equal footing and eliminates any potential gender friction. It's also free of sex, nudity, and sexual posturing, which gives the film a more dignified and authentic feel (although there is a subtle hint of lesbian energy in Ulrika). Unlike so many other female action team movies, these women are going in as soldiers, not as prostitutes, reporters, entertainers, or spies, and they're not expected to use sex as a way to get to the enemy.

Unfortunately, where the film falls apart is in its low budget execution. The visual effects are terrible, with the worst offender being a CGI plane that's used in the climax. It's also unclear where the plane came from and why it was just hanging out unattended. The sets and locations are unconvincing and uninteresting, and Ulrika's fortress compound is a laughable looking miniature. The gun fights are especially weak, and while the women do a good job of simulating gunfire, the men tend to push their guns which looks horribly fake. Explosions and muzzle flashes are all added digitally in post. Thankfully, they try to use squibs as much as possible, so we're treated to a few juicy bullet hits. Sadly, the fight scenes are also disappointing, as the camera obscures most of the action and cuts away from every hit. This robs the actresses of really getting to shine - especially Ms. Bell, who can easily hold her own against any of the other stunt players.

So, yes, it's a cheesy formulaic action plot with cringe-worthy dialog and a cast of characters that can survive an unbelievable amount of physical punishment. But if you can look past the low production values and other genre pitfalls, you might find a highly enjoyable female action outing with a strong and likable cast of serious-minded ladies. It's definitely a guilty pleasure of mine, and arguably better than "The Expendables 3" (2014). With "Mercenaries," the gauntlet has been thrown, so now we'll just have to wait and see if Stallone accepts the challenge to go ahead with his version.