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Plot: troubled Vietnam vet turns vigilante to restore order in his city.

Just two years ago French indie filmmaker Benjamin Combes made the coolest retro 80s action movie. That was Commando Ninja (2018) and it was lensed over a two-year period on a modest €35,000 budget. A 70-minute love note to just about every classic Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme movie under the sun. Hopkins does for the vigilante what Perfect-Lover.com (程序戀人) (2018) did for the robot girlfriend subgenre: enliven it by modernizing its worn-out conventions and tropes. Always wanted to know more about what events shaped corporal Leeroy Hopkins? Ask and you shall receive. Just like The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) before it Hopkins packs a lot of punch in a short 18 minutes. Not only is Hopkins a thematical precursor to its more popular cousin but it also serves to whet appetites for and drum up interest in the currently in pre-production and being crowdfunded Commando Ninja II: Invasion America. Before John Hunter there was Hopkins.

Naturally a project like Hopkins requires a different aesthetic and stylistic approach. Instead of the over-the-top action of Commando Ninja (2018) this time around Combes explores the urban vigilante subgenre that was popular from the mid-to-late seventies. As such Hopkins takes more of a psychological direction and is much more of a slowburn instead of a wall-to-wall action romp. It’s more Taxi Driver (1976) than The Driller Killer (1979) and more Death Wish (1974) than First Blood (1982) – which doesn’t stop it from climaxing with an obvious homage to The Exterminator (1980). As much as the The Exterminator (1980) segment is the centerpiece Hopkins at all times remains a very character-driven piece. As much as Combes loves all those no-holds-barred action movies that Cirio H. Santiago seemed to specialize in whenever he wasn’t ripping off Mad Max (1979) or making topless kickboxing movies - Hopkins is not that. No, Hopkins is a very quiet, brooding, and at times introspective piece of cinema.

New York City, 1978. Five years after they put a rifle in his hand, sent him off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man corporal Leeroy Hopkins (Philippe Allier) is a PTSD-afflicted pariah and vagrant. In lieu of treatment he numbs his pain with alcohol and narcotics. In his waking hours he’s haunted by visions of Vietcong (Leo Guyard and Joey Rudolf) he encountered in the jungle and the nights are even worse. The country and city he loves and spilled blood for is morally bankrupt and ripe with decay. Pimps (Ludwig Oblin), prostitutes, and crackheads litter the streets. The very peope he fought now are food vendors and run restaurants all across the Big Apple. His commanding officer Colonel Magnum (Steve Rappard) and the military brass seem in no hurry to offer any help. The more destitute and desperate Hopkins grows the further he slips into insanity. When his former Vietnam buddies start dying under mysterious circumstances Hopkins’ condition only worsens. The further his sanity erodes the stronger and livelier his visions become. One night he encounters an AK-47 wielding Vietcong woman Lan (Floriane Fizaine) emerging from the sewers, but shrugs it off as a hallucination. Except that it isn’t. Armed with a flamethrower Hopkins engages his (real or imagined) enemy – until the Army find him passed out in the street, boozed and drugged out of his mind. 1 January, 1979 - Magnum recruits a sobered up Hopkins into the Army reuniting him in California with his Green Beret buddies from the old Lizard Smokers platoon. Not only did he get a fancy-looking suit and plum desk job with the US Air Force – the military installed him with a rather nifty Powerglove too.

And let it be known: Benjamin knows exactly which buttons to push and which genre sensibilities to cater to. His heroes are very much modeled upon Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme’s most enduring characters – yet besides all that rugged, roided up masculinity he, very much in Hong Kong tradition, consistently casts strong and beautiful women, Caucasian and otherwise, in key roles and parts of narrative importance. In Commando Ninja (2018) we had Cécile Fargues, Charlotte Poncin, and young Anaëlle Rincent. Hopkins has Floriane Fizaine. True to form Hopkins is not Fizaine’s story and Philippe Allier very much owns the character he so brilliantly portrayed two years before. Helped in no small part by the fact that Allier looks like a young Michael Biehn he’s Chuck Norris and Jean-Paul Belmondo rolled into one. His Hopkins is smug, casually racist, but that macho bravado belies a deep insecurity and hurt. It makes you wish people like Jean-Pierre Marielle, Serge Sauvion, and/or Howard Vernon were still around to play the elder patriarch of some crime dynasty. Hopkins’ aim is not big explosions, witty quips, and/or funny one-liners. Combes exhibits his versatility by showing that a character study comes just as natural to him as an action flick. In a just world Hopkins would be expanded into a 90-minute feature.

Who wouldn’t want to see Combes do a Naked Vengeance (1985) or Silk (1986) derivate – or better yet, a good-natured Andy Sidaris styled spy-action romp like Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) or Picasso Trigger (1988) with Charlotte Poncin, and Cécile Fargues in candy-colored bikinis fighting Floriane Fizaine with oversized guns in some sunny tropical locale? Bring back the aerobic and new wave. Stock up on spandex and lycra, neon-colored leggings, stirrup-pants, pastel-colored leotards and bodysuits, legwarmers and headbands. Have the assembled bronzed, oiled (and preferably exposed) hardbodies of Emilie Bedart, Océane Husson, and Stella Reig at the ready. Hell, hire GreenCatFromHell and Céline Ebeyne while you’re at it. Let Anthony Centurini and pint-sized powerhouse Cecily Faye do the choreography. Crank up that electric guitar. Fire up the sax. The world needs a hero. Ideally in the shape of a woman. Things are goddamn grim. Keep the blood flowing, the bullets flying, and the boobs bouncing. Enough with the commandos. We need more estrogen. Call in the LETHAL Ladies.

If Mainland China can churn out a multi-episode parallel all-girl franchise to Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables franchise on a fraction of the budget, so can you. Kinda like Mercenaries (2014) reimagined with an 80s sensibility. Bring Me the Head Of the Machine Gun Woman (2012) (with Fernanda Urrejola) sort of got it. Get the old band back together and lens that StarCrash (1978) or Galaxina (1980) space romp that The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) only hinted at. Better still, how about an epic adventure in the Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Barbarian Queen (1985) tradition? If Arrowstorm Entertainment can produce the Mythica (2014-2016) pentalogy there’s obviously a market and audience for that sort of thing. Certainly Nicola Posener, Melanie Stone and/or Danielle C. Ryan wouldn’t mind a holiday dans la belle France.

In short, there’s plenty of creative avenues to go from here and a multitude of projects to conceptualize and explore. If this is going to be Benjamin Combes’ modus operandi to follow up each full length feature with a short movie the future is looking bright and, no doubt, lit in eye-searing neon. We haven’t seen the last of monsieur Combes yet. Judging by his social media profiles the vaults of his boundless imagination are bursting at the seams just like his women are always on the verge of busting out. If you couldn’t get enough from Commando Ninja (2018) and are hungering for more, Hopkins is your ticket. It might be tonally different but is otherwise largely the same. Floriane Fizaine is a breath of fresh air and hopefully we’ll see more of her in the future. Imagine if Combes unleashes her as an enemy on John Hunter much in the same way as Veronica Ngo in Furie (2019). As a matter of fact we wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Hopkins ends up partially (or entirely) reconstituted as a character – and worldbuilding flashback in Commando Ninja II: Invasion America. As Sensei Yinn proclaimed, “there can be only one… Commando Ninja!” hopefully this is only the beginning of a very prosperous and enduring indie franchise. If that doesn’t catapult Benjamin Combes into a Hollywood or Hong Kong career, then what will?

Plot: mercenary happens upon conspiracy while tracking mass murderer.

Rene Perez describes Cabal as a tribute to “80s exploitation” which is just about the biggest oxymoron if there ever was one. At the dawn of the 80s the grindhouses on 42nd street were on the verge of extinction as the burdgeoning home video market swept in as a cleansing fire and the new alternative for low budget thrills. Semantics aside, Perez directed, edited, photographed, scored, and co-wrote Cabal with frequent collaborator Barry Massoni, and it’s one of his best this side of Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018). Eva Hamilton once again showcases that she’s the best Perez babe since Nicole Stark, Karin Brauns, Irina Levadneva, and Alanna Forte. Cabal is very much Cry Havoc (2019) with a late seventies/early eighties exploitation aesthetic. Death Kiss (2018) was an obvious tribute to Death Wish (1974). Cabal seems to be a tribute to the backwood horror and cheapo action features that were popular in the early eighties.

To say that Rene Perez has come a long way since The Snow Queen (2013) would be putting it mildly. In the last couple of years Perez has gotten far more dynamic and mobile in the way he shoots and lines up his scenes. His static scenic shots now only are part of a much wider palette and his keen eye for beautiful landscapes hasn’t dulled. When conceptualizing Cabal he probably looked towards bonafide American classics as Bloodeaters (1980), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), I Drink Your Blood (1970), and Raw Force (1982). As for the government conspiracy angle Coma (1978), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), or Eyes Behind the Stars (1978) are likely inspirations. Honestly, as much as we can get behind Cabal on mere principle as it obviously has it heart in the right place, it just so happens to be confused about what exactly it wants to be. Cabal is four movies mangled into one – it isn’t Commando Ninja (2018) or anything.

One day military contractor Dragonfly (John Ozuna) makes his acquaintance with Elizabeth (Eva Hamilton) in a local wateringhole. Elizabeth has been investigating the disappearance of a number of nubile women in the California Redwood forests. She believes that the women are brought there by a band of human traffickers who harvest their organs for interested third-parties. To get to said organs and body parts they let the women loose in the woodlands where Sallos (Tony Jackson) dwells. Sallos is a deranged homicidal maniac sporting a mask and a barbwired axe with a known affinity for bodily dismemberment and his quick, brutal methods of execution. After negotiating terms of the contract Dragonfly sets out to find Sallos and any survivors.

It doesn’t take long before Dragonfly is able to locate Sallos. When he finds remains of other girls that went missing he happens upon a massive conspiracy involving the local elite with ties going to the highest echelons of government, the corporate world, and mass media. It seems that Dr. Bieger (Joseph Camilleri), his media magnate girlfriend Kathleen (Linda Bott), their mutual associate and head of operations Sloan (Keely Dervin) and corporate strongwoman Thea (Alexandra Fabbri, as Alex Fabbri) are part of a organ harvest ring with the help of Dr. Kelly (Denise Poole) at the local hospital. Their goal is obtain eternal youth and vitality which will allow them to further strengthen and consolidate their political – and economical influence to bend the powers that be to their will. Now the cabal has set their eye on a waitress (Candace Cannon) and aspiring model Priss (Rebecca Tarabocchia). Things take a turn for the personal when Elizabeth is ambushed by para-military forces and finds herself at the mercy of Sallos.

Whereas Death Kiss (2018) was blatant and obvious in what it imitated Cabal is far less so. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Cabal is supposed to pay homage to outside of “80s exploitation” - and that’s enough of a blanket term to be practically meaningless. With Cabal Rene has thrown together a bunch of different popular 80s fads without bothering too much, or at all, whether they mesh together, or not. First and foremost, Cabal is an action movie – complete with explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and bloodspatters. Second, it’s a backwood horror about a deranged masked killer stalking, hacking, and killing a bunch of pretty girls in a scenic woodland locale. Third, it’s a police thriller wherein a military contractor is hired by a private individual to track down a bunch of missing persons. Fourth, and finally, it’s conspiracy thriller about the wealthy and politically connected elite operating a clandestine organ harvest ring out of a hospital to attain the closest thing to immortality. Most of the time, however, Cabal feels like Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018) stitched together.

The new blood is, admittedly, a mixed bag. Tony Jackson replaces J.D. Angstadt as the prerequisite mute serial killer. Jackson’s performance is minimalist and brute, near identical to Angstadt in that regard. Angstadt, of course, modeled his role after Charlie Glackin. John Ozuna will make you pine for Robert Kovacs, David Reinprecht, and Robert Amstler. The girls? Well, there’s not really a whole to say about them. Rebecca Tarabocchia, Clementine Hetherington, and Kimberly Molina all do what girls like this in Perez features always do: they smile, take their top off, wimper, and die. Neither of them leaves much of an impression the way Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, Raven Lexy, Stormi Maya, or Elonda Seawood did. Melody Vaughan plays the kind of maternal, protective role that Malorie Glavan usually does. Only Denise Poole and Candace Cannon manage to do something with what little they are given. As for the oldtimers: Linda Bott, and Joseph Camilleri will make you wish Marilyn Robrahn, Richard Tyson or John J. Welsh were still around. Bott and Camilleri would feel right at home in the next Neil Breen spectacular. Illuminating every scene she’s in (and acting better than the majority of the cast, combined) is Eva Hamilton. Miss Hamilton is just about the best thing in Cabal.

For reasons inexplicable Perez has chosen a very desaturated color scheme. The lush vibrant colors of, say, Sleeping Beauty (2014) are conspicuous only by their absence. Sallos is pretty much a nonentity compared to Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and instead of a full-blown The Last House on the Left (1972) madmen-on-the-loose flick Cabal is, for the most part, a fairly conventional action movie with some horror dressings. Cabal would probably have benefitted from cutting Sallos altogether as the Neil Breen-like conspiracy is far more interesting than a bunch of scantily clad babes escaping from another axe-wielding masked maniac. Sallos can in no shape or form compete with Rene’s greatest creation Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and Cabal attests to that. Sallos has no real reason being in Cabal other then to provide a few gory kills, and he has no other function besides that.

The kidnapping and stalking could just as easy been done by the military personnel and there would be no notable narrative difference. The trailer is misleading in that it banks on the presence of Sallos so much. He’s just a peon. Here’s an idea for the next Playing with Dolls episode: an apocalyptic duel between Havoc and Sallos in the California Redwoods devised by The Watcher, with a bunch of pretty people acting as either cannon fodder or live bait. The score is a stroll down to memory lane with lots of ambient synths and piano. For that grimy grindhouse feel the digital film stock is artificially aged through the use of lines, grains, and speckles of dirt. It feels awfully 70s for an 80s throwback. The action direction and fight choreography from John Ozuna is sort of functional but one-dimensional – and has nothing on Hong Kong. Perhaps Perez should keep Ozuna as a consultant and employ Antony Cinturino, Danielle C. Ryan, or Cecily Fay.

Now that Rene is on an 80s revivalist binge let us pitch another idea. How about that long overdue LETHAL Ladies imitation we all know he has been pining to make? He could call it B.U.S.T. (or Branch of Unity, Strategy & Tactics. We have given this some thought, you see) and have the most beloved Perez babes face off against his usual array of stuntmen and bodybuilders. If anything over the years Rene has made some stellar casting choices that wouldn’t feel out of place in a vintage Andy Sidaris spycaper. Imagine what Perez could do with a stretch of beach, palm trees, a warm color palette and a female ensemble cast in pastel-colored bikinis wielding oversized guns and candy-colored cocktails. Who wouldn’t want to see Eva Hamilton, Spring Inés Peña, Omnia Bixler, Alanna Forte (or Elonda Seawood), Karin Brauns (or Wilma Elles), and Aurelia Scheppers (or Irina Levadneva) duke it out in an explosive battle against crimelord Richard Tyson, or Daniel Baldwin and their bevy of gun-wielding beautiful henchettes? What better opportunity than to have Stormi Maya, Raven Lexy, and Gemma Donato cameo? It would the ideal excuse to hire Breen babes Jennifer Autry, or Victoria Viveiros, low budget starlets like Schuylar Craig, Lisa Palenica, Alejandra Morin, Ginny You, and Tracey Birdsall or genuine talent like Cristine Reyes, Nicole Bilderback, Samantha Robinson or Nicola Posener. Andy made 12 of these things, and Rene (so far) has none. How’s that possible? We’d even help brainstorm a storyline outline with possible setpieces and locations, if that’s what it takes to get the ball rolling.

For most of its duration Cabal feels like a repurposed Playing with Dolls script. Over the years Rene has abundantly proven that he knows how to shoot an exciting action scene on a low budget. Death Kiss (2018) evinced that better than anything. Cabal might not be the next big Perez caper but it has its heart in the right place. The thing is that Cabal has a bit too much going on at any point and it lacks the focus of Death Kiss (2018). This would have worked wonders as a madmen-on-the-loose horror flick in tradition of The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or as a martial arts action movie in vein of Raw Force (1982). That Cabal starts out as an action movie only to turn into a backwood horror, and then to contort itself into a conspiracy thriller is what ultimately works to its detriment. It never settles on a specific tone nor direction. It’s everything at once, and none of the above. And that’s a shame. Especially when you have somebody as versatile Eva Hamilton at your disposal. Cabal does everything we have come to expect of a Perez feature – and while it may not surpass them, we can’t shake the impression that this could have been so much more. The trailer certainly looked promising. Perhaps a second go at Cabal might birth what this always should have been.