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Few are going to doubt Erik Rutan’s dedication to the cause of death metal. He got his start in formative New Jersey death/thrash metal combo Ripping Corpse, joined Morbid Angel for the “Covenant” world tour and recorded “Domination” and later “Gateways to Annihilation” with them. More recently he helmed the second Warfather record “The Grey Eminence” in 2016 and Morbid Angel’s surprisingly solid “Kingdoms Disdained” a year after that in his Mana Recording Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida - the new haven for underground metal, foreign and domestic - in very much the same way Morrisound Recording was in the nineties. Rutan lives and breathes death metal and he has never written a lesser record with his Hate Eternal. While age hasn’t dulled Rutan or his band in the slightest, his writing has become infinitely more nuanced, especially in recent years. “Upon Desolate Sands” is everything that “Infernus” was but with far greater nuance.

“Fury & Flames” is a well-documented black page in the band’s history and it was marred by more than a peculiar and hostile reverb-laden production. As far as we’re concerned “I, Monarch” is the penultimate Hate Eternal recording followed closely by “Conquering the Throne”. “Upon Desolate Sands” is the sort of record that we’d usually like on principle alone. Yet, as much as we hate eternally to admit it, our reaction to it was lukewarm at best and completely indifferent at worst. Which is strange because Hate Eternal has a resumé that pretty much speaks for itself at this point. It wouldn’t be a Hate Eternal record if there weren’t the obligatory line-up shuffles. Apparently it’s impossible for Rutan to hold on to any drummer for any length of time. Chason Westmoreland didn’t last beyond the “Infernus” album and he was replaced by former Necrophagist and Obscura skinsman Hannes Grossmann, who’s also currently serving in German death metal outfit Alkaloid and Swiss death-doom combo Tryptikon. “Upon Desolate Sands” is very much a collaborative effort with J.J. Hrubovcak contributing as much as Rutan himself.

Hannes Grossman (left), Erik Rutan (middle) and J.J. Hrubovcak (right)

“Upon Desolate Sands”, the first of the third trilogy, sounds very different from any of this band’s prior records. ‘The Violent Fury’ delivers just that but what quickly becomes apparent is that Hate Eternal sounds far more controlled and stealthily melodic than any prior records. The overall pace is far lower too, something which tracks as ‘Nothingness Of Being’ and ‘Dark Age Of Ruin’ probably evince better than any other. ‘Portal Of Myriad’ on the other hand is vintage Hate Eternal with increased dissonance. The title track is bookended by hypnotizing wordless chants from one Małgorzata Gwózdz and is reminiscent of ‘Coronach’ from “Fury & Flames” for exactly that reason. In keeping with recent traditions “Upon Desolate Sands” is concluded by an instrumental. More than any record before is Rutan’s latest offering rife with classic Morbid Angel influence and the blinding velocity that once was his calling card is used far more sparingly this time around. In a sense “Upon Desolate Sands” leans closer towards “I, Monarch” than it does to “King Of All Kings”. Since “Infernus” Rutan’s vocals aren’t as guttural as they once were and the soloing has become far more melodic and extensive than it was on any of the earlier records. Hrubovcak now has served longer than Jared Anderson and Randy Piro, individually and has been Rutan’s trusted songwriting partner as long as both of his predecessors combined. The drum position remains as volatile as ever whereas the Rutan-Hrubovcak axis proves ever fruitful.

Those hoping for a return to the low-end heaviness of “I, Monarch” will find the production on “Upon Desolate Sands” fittingly matter-of-fact, arid, and, well, dry. The clarity and texture from “Infernus” remain intact while it does not nearly have the low-end weight that served the productions on Warfather’s “The Grey Eminence” and Morbid Angel’s “Kingdoms Disdained” so well. Rutan was never kind to the bass guitar and its rubbery tone possesses all the clarity and definition you could possibly want but is entirely without heft or body otherwise. Over the years the drum production has underwent a few staggering transformations yet “Upon Desolate Sands” for the most part carries over the warm tones from “Infernus”. Build from the same template as its predecessor “Upon Desolate Sands” is more of a continuation instead of a progression from what “Infernus” did before it. Erik Rutan stays loyal to the slightly modernized sound that Hate Eternal adopted in recent years and like any other entry in his discography there are no real complaints to be leveled at it as such. Rutan is a respected and widely decorated death metal warrior for a good reason and “Upon Desolate Sands” caters to fans of his work in exactly the ways they want. While offering no shocking innovations it solidifies Hate Eternal’s well-deserved place among the death metal elite.

The third Hate Eternal trilogy puts the focus on ancient antiquity and historical subjects and it’s incredible how far Rutan’s writing has come since the releasing of the now-legendary “promo ’97 / Engulfed In Grief” split demo tape in 1997. On “Conquering the Throne” Hate Eternal sounded like the band Diabolic always wished it was, “King Of All Kings” is a death metal classic for a reason but it wouldn’t be until “I, Monarch” that Rutan’s writing showed some mention worthy individuality. “Fury & Flames” saw the band in a state of flux and temporary disarray after the untimely loss of Jared Anderson. We skipped over “Phoenix Amongst the Ashes” entirely and it wouldn’t be until 2015’s “Infernus” that we started paying to Rutan’s band once more. The only notable change is Eliran Kantor replacing Paul Romano on “Infernus’” as Hate Eternal’s resident cover artist but established bands on major labels are hardly the place to look for innovation in terms of visuals. Hate Eternal is the last band to accuse of fatigue of any kind but like the most recent Malevolent Creation album the formula is starting to show its rather evident limitations. “Upon Desolate Sands” is slower overall but Hate Eternal has lost none of its searing intensity. Things are looking up for Hate Eternal and this new trilogy might just be their most memorable. Time wil tell…

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.