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Plot: backpacking tourists encounter mercenaries in the jungles of Thailand.

There’s something to be said about the tenets and profound effects of globalization when a contemporary Mainland Chinese jungle action-adventure in the 2010s plays out by the exact same beats and character ur-archetypes as the Thai jungle actioners of Chalong Pakdeevijit in the 90s, the late 80s Italian jungle adventures of the 80s, and Filipino exploitation of the 70s. Angel Warriors (or 鐵血嬌娃 back at home) is conclusive proof that regardless of the decade and/or the geographic location it was made in certain cinematic tropes and conventions remain universal and unchanging. While it never plunges to the depths of Extra Service (2017) its dour reputation is entirely and richly deserved and not without reason. No amount of hardbodied Sino babes will be able to save a feature with this much of a trainwreck of a script. Mainland China usually is better at military action than this. Angel Warriors will make you wish it was directed by Lu Yun-Fei. Sadly, he was not in the director’s chair for this one.

It truly makes no difference whether this was produced in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Manila. The project was originally conceived in 2011 as Five-Star General - an alleged mix of Tomb Raider (2001) and the military jingoism of Avatar (2009) that pitted a group of female mercenaries or Amazon warriors against an enemy faction in the Thai jungles - and later the more Charlie’s Angels (2000) informed The Five.As a Thai co-production the Royal Thai Air Force was kind enough to supply helicopters. At some point the military aspect was toned down and the title was changed to Angel Warriors. Whether the screenplay by Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu was altered to accomodate these changes remains unclear. While Angel Warriors pushes an admirable environmental – and animal welfare agenda the screenplay is unbelievably slavish to convention, needlessly convoluted through non-functional flashbacks and rife with bad one-liners and even worse phonetic English. That it was directed by Fu Hua-Yang from the comedy hit Kung Fu Hip Hop (2008) probably didn’t help either.

Five backpacking tourist girls from Mainland China - Bai Xue (Yu Nan), CEO of a big company, passionate motorcyclist and leader of the pack; Yanyan (Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan), a professional dancer and practitioner of martial arts; Ah Ta (Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, as Mavis Pan), an wildlife protectionist; Dingdang (Wang Qiu-Zi), cousin of Bai Xue and internet entrepreneur in outdoor and extreme sports clothing and Tongtong (Wu Jing-Yi), archeologist, polyglot and the resident geek – embark on a trek through the Kana jungle in Thailand in search of the famed Tiger Tribe that has lived undisturbed and in isolation for hundreds of years. As girls are wont to do in they immediately head to the beach and break out their tiny bikinis. It is here that they meet local Dennis (Andy On Chi-Kit) and reformed mercenary Wang Laoying (Collin Chou Siu-Lung as Ngai Sing), a brother-in-arms and friend of Bai Xue’s late younger brother Bai Yun, and occupy themselves with swimming, diving and sailing. Along the way they pick up native guide and noble savage Sen (Xing Yu), betrothed of the princess of the Tiger Tribe. That night the girls go out clubbing and drinking in Pattaya beach and the obligatory bar brawl breaks out. Dennis introduces himself as a National Geographic documentary maker and soon the expedition is headed for Kana.

As the expedition heads deeper and deeper into the jungle the girls notice that the armed militia escorting Dennis is not what it seems. The expedition and the para-military units run into the Tiger Tribe and a fierce fight breaks loose. The natives are able to ward off the Chinese intruders but the girls are captured and imprisoned. The Tiger Tribe warrior princess Ha Er (Wang Danyi Li) and chieftain Aliao (Shi Fanxi, as Lawrence Shi) decree that the girls will be sacrificed to their god. Tongtong deduces what language the tribe speaks and is able to negiotiate the girls’ release. Dennis is revealed to be working with his Triad boss stepfather (Fu Hua-Yang) who are after the precious stones and other natural resources that the Kana jungle houses. The Triad boss sends Black Dragon (Kohata Ryu) and a female assassin (Renata Tan Li-Na) to neutralize both the backpacking girls as well as the native Tiger Tribe. By this point the girls have been accepted by the tribe and are being inducted into their ranks. Will the girls be strong enough to defeat the mercenaries that threaten the lush Kana jungle?

The main cast looks like they were ordered straight out of a Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated Swimsuit catalog. Why Yu Nan, Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Wang Danyi Li ever agreed to be part of this production is anybody’s guess. Someone must have desperately needed the paycheck or wanted a cheap vacation in Thailand. Multiple award-winning and arthouse queen Yu Nan is the obvious draw here and Western viewers might recognize her from the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) and as Maggie from The Expendables 2 (2012). The other big name is Hong Kong and Mainland China veteran Collin Chou Siu-Lung. His earliest appearance of note was in Encounter of the Spooky Kind II (1990) but he’s known to Western audiences as Seraph from The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) as well as Ryu Hayabusa from the entertaining DOA: Dead or Alive (2006). Next to that his credits include, among many others, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Mural (2011), and Special ID (2013). Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang was in the Sino What Women Want (2011) as well as Jing Wong's Treasure Inn (2011) and not much else. Like Wang Qiu-Zi she too rose to prominence as a model. Wang Danyi Li was unfortunate enough to be in the universally reviled 2011 remake of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) only to end up here. Renata Tan Li-Na would redeem herself with the Chrissie Chau Sau-Na wuxia The Extreme Fox (2013). She would become popular as a singer/dancer just like Wu Jing-Yi. Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (a year away from adopting her Patricia Hu alias) would go on to become the focus in the breast-centric action romp Ameera (2014). Collin Chou Siu-Lung and Andy On Chi-Kit were in better movies before and after this and they bring some semblance of respectability to this brainless waste of talent.

Where Angel Warriors falters most disastrously is in its screenplay. This is the absolute last place to look at improving the already deeply troubled Sino-Thai relations. Like its Italian forebears of the 1970s and 80s Angel Warriors is rife with imperialist - and genetic xenophobia depicting Thai people as uncultured, jungle-dwelling savages in need to saving by the enlightened white-skinned Chinese. The pre-title opening narration from Xing Yu is in Engrish and thus insulting to not only the Thai but to the English as well. The screenplay briefly toys with the idea of spirit animals and totems, but nothing is really made of it. For a bit it pushes an eco-friendly and animal welfare narrative, but both ideas are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced. Since this an ensemble cast with a few models, dancers and assorted Sino beauty queens the first thing the girls do is break out the bikinis, splash and swim in the nearest lake and before the expedition the girls party in revealing evening dresses. Mainland China might be demure and chaste but they never not took the time to extensively ogle a beautiful girl. It’s difficult to estimate whether writers Huayang Fu and Shalang Xu are just terrible at what they do or whether they were handed the wrong project. Regardless, Angel Warriors is nothing short of a modern day Green Inferno (1988) or a spiritual Sino precursor to the Filipino zombie ensemble comedy iZla (2021). On a lighter note, if you want to make a drinking game out of every time “extreme outdoor backpackers” is mentioned, you’ll be hospitalized within a good 30 minutes.

In theory the affordability of CGI should be a boon to Chinese exploitation cinema but h!story has proven it be more of a bane instead. In what seems like a regional trend it’s the rampant CGI that completely kills much of the production. There’s a time and place for CGI but in Angel Warriors it’s used indiscriminately and disproportionately especially in places where practical special effects would have sufficed. A combination of stock footage, animatronics and practical effects could’ve rendered the tiger scenes. The action scenes are as bullet-ridden and explosive as any contemporary American production. The fight choreography by Ma Yuk-Sing is up to the required standard, although high-flying wire-fu, martial arts acrobacy and interesting fighting routines weren’t in the books here. Obviously there was some budget to go around with Angel Warriors, but apparently the majority of funds was spent in the wrong place. Angel Warriors should’ve opted for the cost-efficient route and used CGI only sparingly. Somewhere along the way somebody lost the plot and the production obviously suffered direly from it. Angel Warriors is definitely not alone in its over-reliance on and over-usage of CGI, it’s a trend in Asian cinema of late. Hopefully the savage critical response will lead to a more old-fashioned special effects usage. Whenever the screen isn’t blinking director Fu Hua-Yang will remind us that all the girls are really pretty.

One of the remnants of this being an Charlie’s Angels (2000) derivative the five girls all wear sexy outfits corresponding with their main interest or defining character trait. Only Bai Xue and Tongtong wear anything remotely semi-practical. Yanyan, Ah Ta and Dingdang all wear some Tomb Raider imitation outfit and midriff baring tops lest we forget that they are played by Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang and Wang Qiu-Zi. Not that any no extreme outdoor backpacker would ever wear what the Angel Warriors are seen in here. Suspension of belief is one thing but Angel Warriors goes completely overboard in reminding everybody how attractive the main cast is. Only Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (who apparently had the greatest potential of becoming a star of her own) was able to move on from Angel Warriors although the following year’s Ameera (2014) all but killed her career. It would be interesting to see Yu Nan, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi, and Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (either seperately or together) in a full-blown Girls With Guns - or period costume wuxia production. It’s not so much that these women can’t act but that they are victims of a poor screenplay. There’s always hope that either Jing Wong or Tsui Hark will pick up them in the future.

Plot: martial artists from all over the world compete in tournament on remote island

There are two kinds of American martial arts movies. Those that came before The Matrix (1999) and those that came after. The former are brutish slogs where the fights more resemble brawls with sluggish choreography and no sense of rhythm and pacing. Often times the fights in these movies tend to be heavily cut and edited because the actors in question have no formal background in martial arts. Even when the performers had a background in the arts (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Olivier Gruner) western martial arts movies tend to be rather slow relying far more on blunt power than on technical expertise. The latter more Asian inclined variants are far more elegant, acrobatic, and fast-moving with professional combatants engaging in elaborate hand-to-hand and weapon-based action routines. DOA: Dead Or Alive thankfully leans more towards the Asian variant and is about as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

DOA: Dead Or Alive (hereafter DOA) has something of a bad rep. Undeservedly as far as we’re concerned. As a western, English-language martial arts movie there are far worse offenders. DOA takes the Mortal Kombat (1995) template and adds a healthy dose of Hong Kong action choreography and wire-fu to spice things up. DOA is what Street Fighter (1994) should have been. DOA was produced by Paul W.S. Anderson on an estimated budget of $21 million with Corey Yuen directing and Devon Aoki, Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Natassia Malthe, and Sarah Carter starring. Perhaps Anderson was hoping to capture lightning a second time the way he did with his Mortal Kombat (1995) some eleven years earlier. Unfortunately DOA made only around $7.5 million - just over a third of its budget - at the box office; and all intended sequels in the new franchise were summarily scrapped. It wouldn’t be until Tekken (2010) before another fighting game came to the big screen. Alas, Rare/Midway’s cartoonishly over-the-top Killer Instinct from 1994 remains without a much-overdue Hollywood treatment for reasons unknown.

Based on the Japanese video game series created by Tomonobu Itagaki for Tecmo DOA is a more or less faithful recreation of the plot from 1999’s Dead Or Alive 2. It features all the beloved characters in their signature costumes and as a bonus of sorts there’s an extended segment dedicated to its legendary 2003 spinoff Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball for good measure. There couldn’t be anything more typically Japanese than Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball where the player plays and interacts with giggling babes with oversized oppai in miniscule candy-colored bikinis. It’s fanservice taken to the ultimate extreme. It’s a thing that could only come from Japan where the near-transactional adoration and adulation of prepubescent - and adolescent girls as Idols (gravure and otherwise) has spawned a booming and very lucrative (multi-billion yen annually) otaku industry. DOA has the babes, the pastel-colored bikinis, and the volleyball. The oppai on the other hand are rather modest. In fact DOA barely scratches the surface on that end. Otherwise it is a fun martial arts romp with some lovably zany production design.

Four martial artists from different walks of life are invited to partake in a clandestine 4-day tournament somewhere in Asia. Princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki) is a kunoichi that leaves her colony to look for her brother Hayate (Collin Chou Siu-Lung). Following her are Ryu Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi) and her half-sister Ayane (Natassia Malthe), the former as her security detail and the latter on a mission to kill the Princess for disgracing her clan. Tina Armstrong (Jaime Pressly) - whose wardrobe seems to exclusively consist of a Union Jack bikini and a very short pair of blue jeans – sees it as a springboard to prove her legitimacy as a fighter and that she’s not the phony she’s often accused of being. Tagging along is her father Bass Armstrong (Kevin Nash). Christie Allen (Holly Valance) is a British master thief and assassin who not only has her eye on the $10 million price money but also on an alleged treasure hidden somewhere on the island. Along with her partner Maximillian Marsh (Matthew Marsden) the two accept the invitation. Lastly, Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter) is the daughter of the original DOA tournament organiser and the object of affection of DOA tech head Weatherby (Steve Howey). Douglas is distrustful of Dr. Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts) who now runs DOA.

The two American name-stars of DOA are Devon Aoki and Jaime Pressly. Aoki started as a model in music videos from Duran Duran, Primal Scream, Ludacris and Genuwine. Naturally that led Devon to an acting career with semi-memorable turns in 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), D.E.B.S. (2004) and Sin City (2005). Jaime Pressly also started as a model but soon carved out a career in low-brow comedies, thrillers, and the occassional horror with Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997), Can't Hardly Wait (1998), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), and Demon Island (2002). Less known but not any less popular was Australian actress Holly Valance who began her career in the soap opera Neighbours (from whence Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, and Natalie Imbruglia came) but didn’t flirt with the mainstream until the new millennium. In 2002 she released the hit single ‘Kiss Kiss’, an English reworking of the 1997 original Tarkan hit single ‘Şımarık’, from her debut album “Footprints”. As far as millennial dance-pop went Valance was a rival for the likes of Rachel Stevens and Gabriella Cilmi.

Compared to her peers Canadian television actress Sarah Carter was a relative nobody with only a supporting part in Final Destination 2 (2003) to her name. Natassia Malthe (one of the many victims of predatory producer Harvey Weinstein) was in Disturbing Behavior (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Elektra (2005) and via BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007), Alone in the Dark II (2008) and BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011) now seems to dwell permanently in direct-to-video, low budget hell. Collin Chou Siu-Lung is primarily known in the Western hemisphere for his roles as Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) as well as the Jade Warlord in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Around these parts he's remembered for the Mainland China action romps Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) from the Film Bureau. Eric Roberts, of course, is the old school professional who has been acting since 1964. DOA was shortly before his career revival with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and Sylvester Stallone’s all-star 80s action throwback The Expendables (2010).

There was more than enough fanservice in terms of costumes in the Dead Or Alive series and even moreso in its Xtreme Beach Volleyball parallel franchise. DOA takes its sweet time relishing in all the beautiful women that frequently populate the screen. It’s the kind of fanservice that's never exploitative. The two most obvious instances are the introduction of the four leads and the friendly volleyball match in the second act. Where else are you going to see Holly Valance in nothing but a towel laying waste to some faceless goons before putting her lingerie back on? The original scene had Valance topless when she came out of the shower and fully nude during the actual fight. To secure a PG-13 rating the scene was censored in post-production. Then there’s Jaime Pressly in a tiny bikini meting out punishment to a group of pirates while adrift at sea, the pirate leader who is none other than Robin Shou from Mortal Kombat (1995). The beach volleyball segment contains enough ass – and chest shots to satiate anybody’s cravings while the actual bouncing is fairly minimal. As much as Xtreme Beach Volleyball revolutionized jiggle physics those hoping to see Chinese belles as Zhu Ke Er, Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Liu Zhimin, Daniella Wang Li Danni, Miki Zhang Yi-Gui, and Pan Chun-Chun, or one of their 2006 equivalents, among the volleyball playing extras will be sorely disappointed. None such thing will be forthcoming.

The action direction and choreography from Guo Jian-Yong puts DOA leagues above Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995). The various duels are hard-hitting, energetic and fast-paced with shorter or longer routines and wire-fu that capitalize maximally on the girls’ elegance and athleticism. Of course it would be folly to expect from Aoki, Pressly, Valance and Carter to match themselves with Angela Mao, Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, or Cynthia Khan. Director Corey Yuen was a veteran from the Peking Opera School and one of the members of The Seven Little Fortunes that also included Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao. Yuen was in the Tsui Hark fantasy wuxia Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and made a name for himself in North America through his films with Jet Li. He might not be as well-known in the western hemisphere as Yuen Woo-ping and Ching Siu-tung. Yuen Woo-ping will forever be associated with the Wachowski’s cyberpunk action classic The Matrix (1999) and Ching Siu-tung for his work on A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), as well as the Hindi superhero masalas Krrish (2006), and Krrish 3 (2013).

DOA is a guilty pleasure of the purest sort. It’s not the kind of movie you watch for the story in the first place. Holly Valance looks great in lingerie and in a bikini. Devon Aoaki can’t really act and Jaime Pressly is about the worst American stereotype imagineable. Sarah Carter looks really adorable and Eric Roberts visibly enjoys himself chewing scenery while surrounded by beautiful women. The orange-pink-purple production design is a feast to behold and that DOA occassionally mimics its videogame counterpart makes it all the more fun. That’s perhaps DOA’s greatest forté, it never takes itself too seriously. DOA knows that it’s rank pulp and what little plot there was is mere pretext to showcase the four leads in their signature costumes. As far as we’re concerned DOA is the StarCrash (1978) of Hollywood martial arts movies. DOA is all about fun and as a martial arts exercise it’s better than it has any reason to be. DOA’s bad rep is not unfounded but that doesn’t make it any less of an entertaining action romp for a lazy afternoon.