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Hopkins (2020)

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?