Skip to content

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.

The Florida swamps have proven fertile the last couple of years with old guard representatives Deicide, Monstrosity, Morbid Angel, and Pessimist (who are Floridian by proxy) all releasing commendable offerings. Malevolent Creation has always been relegated to something of a second-tier status despite having a more consistent repertoire, indefatigable work ethic and a relentless worldwide touring schedule than most of their more accessible, more readily marketable peers. Few bands can survive the loss of an iconic frontman. Even fewer can survive multiple complete line-up overhauls and still sound recognizably like themselves. “The 13th Beast” (which we’d hoped to be a temporary working title) is historic for being the first Malevolent Creation album since the untimely passing of Brett Hoffmann and their 13th since their formation in 1987. On “The 13th Beast” Phil Fasciana and his Malevolent Creation re-emerge with renewed vigor and purpose.

Il faut le faire, recording 13 albums with a near-constant revolving door line-up over 30 years. Malevolent Creation isn’t an institution for nothing. Their dysfunctionality is legendary. The sheer amount of in-fighting this band has endured is infamous and their turnover in personnel borders on the astronomical. Yet somehow they’re still here. In all face of all the hardship, all the opposition (or indifference, it’s hard to say which) they’ve endured over the years Phil Fasciana shows no signs of resigning or even slowing down. To be frank, Fasciana has never written an outright terrible album. Sure, there were some releases we were invariably indifferent towards along the way – but they never strayed too much, if at all, from their established formula. For over an incredible three decades and counting Malevolent Creation has proven resilient in face of the kind trials and tribulations that would have killed any lesser band a long time ago. As the Dying Fetus of the Tampa Bay Area Phil Fasciana has lived through his share of controversy and disaster.

Lee Wollenschlaeger (left), Phil Fasciana (middle-left), Phil Cancilla (middle-right) and Josh Gibbs (right)

In what has become a sad tradition for this unit a lot has changed in the Malevolent Creation camp since “Dead Man’s Path”, their debut on Century Media Records, in 2015. Firstly, in 2016 Jason Blachowicz (bass guitar), Justin DiPinto (drums), and Gio Geraca (lead guitar) either all left or were fired depending on who you ask. Secondly, and far more tragic, long-time frontman Brett Hoffmann was felled by colon cancer in July 2018 ruling out any future reunions of the classic line-up. Instead of bringing back former frontman Kyle Symons and bass guitarist Gordon Simms from the 1998-2004 era Fasciana has assembled a cast of relative nobodies. Lee Wollenschlaeger (who pulls double-duty on lead guitar) is given the Herculean task of replacing iconic late frontman Brett Hoffmann and his substitute Kyle Symons. Josh Gibbs (from universally and uniformly reviled retro-thrash metal act Thrash Or Die) replaces Jason Blachowicz, Gordon Simms, and Mark van Erp. Philip Cancilla, who gained some notoriety with South Carolina’s Narcotic Wasteland, replaces illustrious institutions as Justin DiPinto, Gus Rios, Dave Culross, Derek Roddy, Alex Marquez, and Lee Harrison. Of all the different reconfigurations that Malevolent Creation has gone through this is one of humble unknowns.

On “The 13th Beast” several of Malevolent Creation’s various iterations converge. Structurally it’s the closest to “Retribution” one is likely to get in the modern age. Some of the guitar work harkens back to “The Fine Art Of Murder” and the soloing is some of the finest in years. Wollenschlaeger combines the percussive qualities of Symons with the grittier bellowing roar of Blachowicz on “Eternal” and “In Cold Blood”. Cancilla is as good as anyone who sat behind the kit for this band and Gibbs’ thick bass guitar lies prominently in the mix. Songs typically come in two varieties. First, there are the Slayer inspired tracks that borrow from “The Ten Commandments” and, secondly, the more straighforward, no-frills blast exercises in tradition of “Envenomed”, “The Will to Kill” and “Warkult”. Malevolent Creation was never known for its experimentation and their tried-and-true songwriting approach has yet to show any notable defects. They might not write albums that tend to innovate their genre but they always form good representations of it. “The 13th Beast” is no different in that regard. It presents no novelties whatsoever and amply demonstrates that there’s a place for Malevolent Creation in 2019. “Dead Man’s Path” was somewhat all over the place, “The 13th Beast” possesses a greater focus.

Not quite as spectacular this time around is the artwork. Once upon a time Malevolent Creation could be counted upon to have decent artwork. Those hoping that Fasciana would commission canvasses from Adam Burke, Brian Smith, César Eidrian, Giannis Nakos, Federico Boss, Raphael Gabrio, Marcos Miller, Andrey Khrisanenkov, or Cristina Francov won’t find them here. “The 13th Beast” perseveres with Chilean artist German Latorres whose work on “Dead Man’s Path” was far better than this unforgivable eyesore of a cover. Whether it were the classic Dan Seagrave canvasses of the early years or the digital covers from 2000-2007, anything and everything is superior to this cartoony abomination that’s supposed to look evil and intimidating. The days of Malevolent Creation consistently delivering in the visual aspect are apparently well and truly behind them now. It slightly takes away from the experience as Malevolent Creation is usually better than this. At least they are one of the few to have their integrity intact three decades in.

You have to admire the tenacity, perseverance and resolve that must go in an operation as profoundly challenging as “The 13th Beast”. In three years Fasciana rebuilt his Malevolent Creation from the ground up and managed to write an album’s worth of material simultaneously. There’s a lot you can say about a character as Phil Fasciana and Malevolent Creation as a band but never that they back down in the face of adversity and hardship. That Malevolent Creation is still alive and kicking in 2019 is nothing short of a miracle under the circumstances. Of all the bands coming out of Tampa, Florida in the early nineties Malevolent Creation has by far seen the most internal and external problems. They always stood head and shoulders above Cannibal Corpse, were more consistent than Deicide, more productive than Monstrosity but never as esoteric as Morbid Angel. That Malevolent Creation sounds as rabid and bloodcurdling in 2019 as they did in 1987 should tell you everything you need to know. “No one can destroy this Malevolent Creation,” the late Brett Hoffmann shrieked in 1991. He couldn't have been more right, indeed...