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Plot: four mercenaries must rescue high-profile target in the former Soviet Union

The female-centric action movie is something which the Far East (especially places as China, Hong Kong and Japan and, in lesser degree, Thailand) and South America (the Philippines) was decades quicker to embrace than America and Europe. In the eighties there were more than enough female action stars but they never were given resources and budgets remotely equal to their male counterparts. In the direct-to-video (DTV) market there was a veritable avalanche of female-centric action productions for nigh on a decade starting at the dawn of the eighties. American directors Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Albert Pyun, and Andrew Stevens all contributed to the form. Italian directors as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, and Giuseppe Vari in turn imitated their American inspirations. Filipino one-man exploitation industry Cirio H. Santiago built an entire career out of female-centric action movies. The nineties were a dark and difficult decade for many a genre and like horror hard-hitting action notoriously transformed into a more docile variant of itself, something which satire site Ruthless Reviews once upon a time lovingly coined ‘90s Inaction. In the aughties worldwide action cinema revived in a big way which brings us to Mercenaries.

Proudly continuing the bad cinema legacy of his father Fred, Christopher Olen Ray delivers that long overdue and much talked about female take on Sylvester Stallone’s 80s action throwback ensemble piece The Expendables (2010). The one that all major studios are too afraid to touch. In the eighties this type of low-budget action features were directed by the usual suspects from across the world as Cirio H. Santiago, Jim Wynorksi, Fred Olen Ray, Richard Pepin, Andrew Stevens, and Italian pillars as Sergio Martino, Enzo G. Castellari, Bruno Mattei, or Giuseppe Vari. Since Stallone only took the name and basic premise from Cirio H. Santiago’s original The Expendables (1988), Mercenaries closely mirrors Stallone’s interpretation. Cirio H. Santiago's original after all was little more than a budget-starved Vietnam riff on Robert Aldrich’s World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967). Mercenaries is what charitably be described as a mockbuster take on that year’s The Expendables 3 (2014). It’s not exactly exploitative the way Savage Sisters (1974), Hell Squad (1986), Sweet Justice (1992) and the Andy Sidaris canon were but that doesn’t make any less entertaining. What else would you expect from The Asylum otherwise? It’s definitely not SyFy and thankfully not Cannon. Commando Ninja (2018) probably captured the cinematic zeitgeist far better and was immensely more faithful to the genre it was homaging in minute detail. Mercenaries before anything else is a terrifying example of what happens to actresses past their due date and/or after they peaked in the mainstream and are just looking to stay employed in search of the next big hit.

En route home from a diplomatic mission in the Ganzar Province of the Republic of Kazakhstan in a remote part of the former Soviet Union Elise Prescott (Tiffany Panhilason) is taken hostage by the para-military forces of Grigori Babishkov (Tim Abell). Babishkov works in service of warlord Ulrika (Brigitte Nielsen) who demands the United States install her as the de facto head of state by removing all rival factions. If her demands are not met Ulrika will kill Prescott who just so happens to be the president’s daughter. Prescott is locked up in Ulrika’s base, a former Soviet prison complex called The Citadel. Once the news reaches the CIA agency director Bobby (Gerald Webb) tasks special agent Mona Kendall (Cynthia Rothrock) with organizing an extraction mission. With only a limited time window available to them Kendall puts together a ragtag team of violent female inmates serving time for a variety of crimes. Each member will be offered a full pardon with the only caveat that each has to take part in the operation and that the objective must be met no matter what the cost. The Mercenaries that Kendall selects are disgraced Ranger school alumnus and Delta force operative Cassandra Clay (Zoë Bell), former Marine Corps and scout sniper Kat Morgan (Kristanna Loken), explosives expert and pilot Mei-Ling Fong (Nicole Bilderback), and former CIA agent Donna Ravena or simply Raven (Vivica A. Fox). With help of local village girl Lexi (Alexis Raich) the four bravely storm The Citadel, however it’s not Ulrika they should fear but the nebulous loyalties of one within their own number…

The cast has a couple of obvious choices while others are completely germane to what Mercenaries must have been shooting for. Hong Kong action star Cynthia Rothrock was the most obvious choice with her appearances in Yes, Madam! (1985) and Magic Crystal (1987) and a whole barrage of forgettable HK action movies. Apparently Rothrock was cast one day before shooting began as a replacement for Rebecca De Mornay. The casting of Zoë Bell from Kill Bill (2003-2004), Death Proof (2007), Angel of Death (2009), and Bitch Slap (2009) was spot on. Kristanna Loken from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), BloodRayne (2005), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), and Bounty Killer (2013) is good enough as the budget obviously didn’t allow for Natasha Henstridge or Sandahl Bergman. Quite the headscratcher was the inclusion of television actress Nicole Bilderback from Clueless (1995), Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), Bring It On (2000), and Dark Angel (2000–2002) because obviously they couldn’t afford Maggie Q, Kelly Hu, or even Tara Macken. Last but not least there’s Vivica A. Fox from Independence Day (1996), Set It Off (1996), Batman & Robin (1997), Kill Bill (2003-2004), and Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014). At one point during the introductory segment her Raven quips, “they saved the best for last?which begs the question whether Vanessa Williams was originally considered for the role.

All of the usual criticisms apply for Mercenaries. The action scenes tend to be a lot smaller, less involving and never quite the setpieces they probably were ought to have been. The one-on-one fight choreography is sloppy and has not much in the way of elegance, style, and rhythm. Obviously Bell and Loken can hold their own better than Bilderback and Fox and, perhaps most unforgivable of all, Rothrock is given but one brief fighting scene. Why cast Cynthia Rothrock and only have her stand around and talk? If this was a feature from Olen Ray the elder Loken or Bilderback would have taken their tops off at least once. Loken at one point actually does but she chastely keeps her bra on. For shame, mister Olen Ray! Your old man would have gotten her naked in no time. Mercenaries is the kind of women-in-prison movie where there is the prerequisite mess hall brawl but where there isn’t a single shower scene in sight. Since when does an exploitation movie pass up the opportunity to ogle an attractive naked woman? The explosive finale even has a bad CGI plane chase that makes the computer generated imagery in a Film Bureau production look good in comparison. Despite all of that, Mercenaries somehow works. It's not the kind of thing you'd expect from the klutzes at The Asylum...

This should by all accounts have been a franchise launcher and the fact that The Asylum has yet failed to capitalize on the momentum of a female alternative to The Expendables (2010) leaves the door wide open for competing production companies as TomCat Films to meet the demand in kind. In Asian cinema the action girl has been an ur-character and in the eighties the Girls with Guns subgenre reigned supreme. It’s surprising that pulp specialist Jing Wong hasn’t yet offered up a Hong Kong alternative to that very thing. Mercenaries is that rare mockbuster that is actually good enough to warrant further exploration with a sequel. It’s rare enough for a company like The Asylum to release something that doesn’t border into intentional comedic territory. If recent statements from the company are to be believed The Asylum is planning on releasing a sequel called Mercenaries: Black Ops in 2019. Judging from the tentative poster art the four leads will remain, but alas nothing has been revealed whether the company will be bringing back beloved faces from ‘80s and ‘90s action. In the light of recent cinematic trends we wouldn't be all that surprised if HK exploitation magnate Jing Wong would end up producing a Mainland China or Hong Kong remake. In that case we can only hope that he'll cast Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Patricia Hu Meng-Yuan, Ada Liu Yan, Tian Jing, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to name a few candidates. Apparently Sharknado (2013) isn't the only thing The Asylum is interested in making sequels to.

How we would love to see a bunch of Mercenaries sequels with beloved actresses as Rose Byrne, Megan Boone, Italia Ricci, Diane Guerrero, Amanda Righetti, Jodie Sweetin, and Morena Baccarin or Sarah Shahi, lesser stars as Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Devon Aoki, Dina Meyer, Kari Wuhrer, and Julie Strain to low-budget starlets as Ginny You, Alejandra Morin, Tara Macken, Antoinette Kalaj, Charlotte Poncin, Lisa Palenica, Irina Levadneva, Alanna Forte, Nadia Lanfranconi, Jenny Allford, or Jennifer Churchich in cameo, villainous -, and supporting parts. How amazing would it be if The Asylum pulled off a Godfrey Ho and paired Cynthia Rothrock’s Mona with another CIA agent called Lisa the way Moon Lee was coupled with Michiko Nishiwaki in Princess Madam (1989)? There are so many avenues for the Mercenaries to take and if The Asylum plays its cards right this could be one of the greatest parallel franchises the world has yet been privy to. Mercenaries is a decent enough piece of action cinema if you are prepared to meet it halfway. Some cinematic legacies prove resilient to changing cinematic tastes. The next Olen Ray generation has risen and it’s good to see that some things just never change.

Plot: underground warrior sect vows to stop invasion of extraterrestrial demons.

The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the long awaited and much overdue collaboration between director/action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and producer/writer/director Tsui Hark. Yuen Wo-Ping and Tsui Hark are veritable Hong Kong legends and this Mainland China feature sees both men combining their strengths to create the ultimate fantasy wuxia event movie. Allegedly a remake of Yuen Wo-Ping’s own The Miracle Fighters (1982) The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the first chapter in a grand two-part saga chronicling an epic confrontation between good and evil on the tellurian and the celestial plains. Apparently this was very much supposed to be a Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) for this generation. Unfortunately The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia falls disappointingly, depressingly short of the mark and instead ends up somewhere along the lines of Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994) and Mural (2011).

As producer Hark graced the world with everything from Peking Opera Blues (1986), the A Better Tomorrow (1986-1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991-1997) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) franchises, as well as Dragon Inn (1992), and Green Snake (1993). In capacity as director Yuen Wo-Ping worked with some of the finest martial artists, among them Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh with a resumé including Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Iron Monkey (1993), Fire Dragon (1994), and Wing Chun (1994). As an action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is known in the West for his work on Fist of Legend (1994), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and its amiable sequel Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia sees Tsui Hark writing and producing with Yuen Wo-Ping directing. Nominated in three categories (Best Action Film, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects) at the 12th Asian Film Awards and an additional two (Best Action Choreography, and Best Visual Effects) at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is shockingly average and falls well short of both Hong Kong veterans' individual and collective legacy.

action choreographer/director Yuen Wo-Ping (left) and producer/writer Tsui Hark (right)

No less than 19 production companies and three visual effects firms were involved in the creation of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia. Interestingly, at least for those who pay attention to such things, there was no involvement from the Film Bureau who specialize in these kind of endeavours but on a much smaller scale. Probably because Hark’s screenplay somewhat condemns the corruption of ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Not only does The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia frequently ends up looking like a video game, it’s even structured like one as the merry band of spiritual warriors, each with their own superpower, embark on a perilous six chapter journey to save the world from certain doom at the hand of alien invaders. It comes replete with character power-ups, object fetching quests and end of level boss fights. It’s bad enough when Mural (2011), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ghost Story: Bride with the Painted Skin (2016) end up with better visual effects. At this rate even Bollywood has superior special effects with box office hits as Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). You know a production is in trouble when Ada Liu Yan’s breasts attract far more attention than the grand heroic tale it’s spinning.

In ancient China during the Northern Song Dynasty agile fighter Dao Yichang (Aarif Rahman) travels to the capital of Kaifeng hoping to become the constable. Sent on a mission to intercept non-existing wrong-doers Dao quite accidently happens upon a plot much larger than himself. Chasing a strange-looking villager all through the city and into the local brothel where his goldfish turns into an oversized, three-eyed demon causing pandemonium and chagrin to prostitute Mermaid (Ada Liu Yan). The incident attracts the attention of the secretive Wuyinmen warrior clan. They have long held the prophecy that such an event would herald the coming of their destined leader. The seven Wuyinmen members have inherited the magical skills of Qimen and the Dunjia orb will allow them to repel the alien invasion. Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) forges an alliance with Dao, which prompts Big Brother (Wu Bai) to seek out the Destroyer Of Worlds device. Meanwhile Wuyinmen doctor and strategist Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) happens upon waifish ingénue Circle (Zhou Dong-Yu), who's not only an amnesiac but bears the wrist markings of the prophesied Wuyinmen messiah, in a catacomb. That the fragile and slender stray also is a demonic shape-shifting monstrosity is something only Tsui Hark could come up with. With time rapidly ticking away Iron Butterfly and her brothers engage in a desperate effort to safe the world from a ferocious alien force that threatens to destroy it.

If nothing of the above comes across as your typical Tsui Hark fantastical adventure then you’re absolutely right. An everyman chases what turns out to be an alien lifeform and happens upon an impending invasion while being initiated into a top-secret organization (that civilians are blissfully unaware of even exists) and they need a certain object of great importance and magnificent power to stop said invasion from destroying all life on Earth? The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, should there really be any doubt it is, the Chinese equivalent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997). Aarif Rahman does his best Will Smith impression, Ni Ni is Tommy Lee Jones complete with snark and cynicism, and Da Peng is Rip Torn. At various points Ada Liu Yan and Zhou Dong-Yu stand in for Linda Fiorentino. It’s depressing to see Hark imitating Hollywood, especially in light of how he once was an innovator. Only the messiah prophecy is somewhat redolent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) but that’s the extent to which Hark deviates from the Men In Black (1997) model. For Chinese audiences the story might have been something else with its daring mix of comedy, Chinese folklore, science fiction and a decidedly Western idea of a plot. For Western audiences The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia riffs on Men In Black (1997) just a bit too close for comfort. It has neither the charm nor the goofy comedy from the Barry Sonnenfeld original. Slapstick humor has long been a boon to the work of Tsui Hark, but here it’s definitely more of a bane.

At least the story is reminiscent of both Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) but there’s where the good news ends. The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is frustratingly episodic and builds towards a climax that never really comes. It’s so busy setting up the inevitable sequel that it frequently forgets that it’s supposed to tell its own story for that sequel to make any sense. Somewhere in the early 2000s Mainland China features started to resemble 2 hour trailers more than actual movies and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is no different. Tsui Hark’s masterful eye for composition and use of color is painfully absent and the acrobatic action choreography from Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Shun-yi isn’t enough to save The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia from prematurely collapsing in on itself. As a greatest hits of sorts there are clumsy constables and well-meaning Confucian scholars, brave sword(wo)men, gravity-defying physics and plenty of beautiful women, prostitutes and otherwise, who are either chaste or promiscuous and always prefer a few slaps across the face as a form of foreplay. Most of the men are bumbling idiots constantly dangling for threesomes with girls who might, or might not, be monsters. Granted everything’s beautifully photograped by Choi Sung-Fai but it never congeals into the Chinese The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) that it probably was meant to be.

Perhaps the worst of all is that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia never becomes more than a sum of its parts. At its best it harnesses the mad kinetic energy of We’re Going to Eat You (1980) but those moments are far and few. 34 years after Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) you’d imagine Tsui Hark having the fantasy wuxia down to a science. If The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was meant to rejuvenate and redefine the fantasy period costume genre then it’s perhaps time to look to at the small screen where series as Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) do the same thing to much greater effect on a comperatively smaller budget. Ni Ni is overflowing with talent even though the shadow of Joey Wong, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung looms large over her. Xie Miao was in God Of Gamblers Return (1994) and it’s always good seeing him in another high-profile production. Ada Liu Yan was in Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) and her star is definitely on the rise. Yan is well underway eclipsing Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi and Yang Ke in terms of bankability. Arguably Tsui Hark has seen better days and his new obsession with digital effects might very well spell the end of practical effects in his movies from here on out. Yuen Wo-Ping on the other hand helms The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia with all the finesse and professionalism you’d expect from an esteemed veteran of his caliber.

Critical – and fan reception was mixed to negative and for once they were spot on. It’s sad to see Tsui Hark, the Steven Spielberg from Asia, undertake such an ambitious project and have it fail so unbelievably spectacularly due to a hamfisted screenplay and some of the most unconvincing digital - and visual effects this side of a bad PlayStation 3 game. That the man who innovated Asian cinema time and again (by taking old folklore stories and reinventing them as action-filled special effects extravaganzas) in the past three decades now finds himself a follower instead of a leader of contemporary cinematic trends is depressing enough. If, and when, the proposed second chapter of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia does arrive we can only hope that Tsui Hark will be able to properly amaze us with his enchanting vistas of mythical figures engaged in epic battle once again. There’s no shortage of the fantastical element in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, if only the human element was half as interesting as it ought to be. There is a time and place to admire Ada Liu Yan, but we have an inkling suspicion that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was not supposed to be it.