I’ve long believed that if you grabbed someone at random off the street, gave him $10,000 and told him to make a film, odds are he’d come up with something that’s at least as good (or interesting, or funny) as anything being dumped into multiplexes. To that end, here’s Lethal Force: a movie that was shot for less money than most people spend on a wedding or a new car, stars no one you ever heard of, and is a complete blast from beginning to end. It’s as rough-edged as you’d expect a movie like this to look, but the movie knows that and has great fun with its bargain-basement production values instead of being trapped by them.
Force is an anthology of fast-moving clichés lifted from pretty much everything in sight: direct-to-video action movies, splatter flicks, and “heroic bloodshed” Hong Kong gun-fu films. It’s played straight when it needs to be played straight, but it’s mostly twisted into comedic shapes at unexpected moments, and it all works. The whole thing’s the brainchild of one “Sir” Alvin Ecarma, who wrote and directed (and probably did the catering, too), and turned the whole thing out for something like a mere $15,000. Somehow bootleg VHS copies of it leaked onto the tape-trading circuit, and everyone who stumbled across it were not just impressed with but fond of the movie (myself included). Now it has been licensed for DVD courtesy of Unearthed Films, and it lives admirably up to the hype.
There’s a plot, sorta-kinda, and it’s no less absurd or minimal than the plot you’d get from your typical overheated thriller. A hitman, Jack (Frank Prather) comes home to find his wife and son missing—kidnapped by the sinister Mal Locke (Andrew Hewitt), who wants Jack to betray his best buddy and fellow assassin, Savitch (played by Cash Flagg, Jr.—and if that name makes you laugh, you’re probably the right audience for this film). Jack grudgingly goes through with the betrayal, but that’s nothing compared to the vengeance that Savitch unleashes not only on his captors but on Jack as well. There is more, quite a bit more, none of which lends itself to a synopsis and is better seen (and laughed at) than described.
Most of the movie is just plain fun, aimed at folks who would describe themselves as cult-movie fans, but the tribute is affectionate and not condescending; sly, not snide. Anyone who’s seen one of John Woo’s movies will laugh out loud when they hear the “sentimental” harmonica music on the soundtrack, but Ecarma ups the ante further and gives us a direct quote / gag from Woo’s A Better Tomorrow…and then some. The biggest laughs in the movie are the smart little touches—like how Mal Locke’s faceless sidekicks really are faceless, or a gag about bunch of hitmen who’re from Minnesota, which according to my friend Eric is someplace you definitely don’t want to get caught after the sun goes down.
One of the things I look for in any low-to-no-budget production (and believe me, I’ve seen a zillion of them) is how well the director works despite the circumstances of the movie’s production. Ecarma isn’t slumming it: he knows how to move the camera, how to frame shots, how to keep things funny and sustained, and how not to let a lack of cash hamstring his ingenuity. When there’s a fight scene—one of many crammed into a barely-seventy-minute film, by the way—it may not be as polished as a “professional” piece of work, but it’s set up and played off in such a way and with such good humor that it doesn’t matter.
Behind every movie like this there’s typically a colorful character, and if the IMDB’s blurb on Ecarma is to be believed, he’s downright Technicolor. A car accident in 1997 left him without his left hand and left leg (and minus vision in one eye, to boot), but he nonetheless handles his behind-the-camera duties through a combination of prosthetics and sheer grit. A follow-up to Lethal Force entitled Dodge Jackson fell victim to trouble behind the scenes, but he’s since retooled and is now hard at work on yet another project; check his site for details as they emerge.
The other day I was having a conversation with my brother about the movies, and I quoted back at him something I’d heard that is becoming only more depressingly true with every passing day. The movie companies are not in the movie business; they’re in the risk-management business. They take a property and get the maximum return they can on an investment in it. The end result is year after year of terrible, bland films that nobody really wants to watch, but which we stick ourselves in front of anyway because there’s nothing else around (or so we think). I was also of the opinion that if the movie business as we know it collapsed tomorrow, there would be no end of people ready to step in, take over, and make things that were at least as interesting—and maybe even more so—with a tenth or even a hundredth of the money. Lethal Force convinced me I was right.
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