Director: Zale Dalen
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Wolf Larson, Laurie Holden, Anthony De Longis, Michael Blanks, Réal Andrews, Sam Moses, Jefferson Mappin, Géza Kovács, Richard Fitzpatrick, Brett Halsey, Scott Wickware, Lazar Rockwood
Running Time: 91 min.
By Will McGuire
I adore the world of 80’s and 90’s western martial arts action films. If it stars Sho Kosugi, Jeff Speakman, Don Wilson, or Mark Dacascos it’s probably going to be a guilty pleasure of mine. In the last few years, Vinegar Syndrome has supplemented their grindhouse menu of horror and sexploitation with a healthy dose of just this sort of low budget martial arts films. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Talons of the Eagle, which paired Tae-Bo legend Billy Blanks with Tiger Claws star and producer Jalal Merhi. That film perfectly scratched the itch for B-movie action schlock and so I was excited to pick up and review another Blanks/Merhi collaboration: Expect No Mercy, a movie that actually began development as a sequel to the aforementioned Talons.
Expect No Mercy is not just a retread of Talons as it trades the crime film elements and traditional martial arts school stuff for almost a low-rent Bond plot about government agents battling a megalomaniacal tech millionaire (the amazingly named Wolf Larson) who is training assassins via virtual reality. That plot point, and how willing you are to go with it, is really going to be the single determining factor in whether Expect No Mercy is a treasured, trashy classic for you or just trash that needs to be taken out.
Martial arts films are a bit like punk rock: they require a certain authenticity and they benefit from visceral low-fi production values that compliment their manic energy. The instances where computer effects have been successfully integrated with martial arts, and I’m specifically thinking about stuff like Crouching Tiger here, the effects have been tasteful and unobtrusive.
By contrast Expect No Mercy employs a very mid-90’s approach to “virtual reality” somewhat reminiscent of films like The Lawnmower Man. It ends up being a disastrous decision, but I understand why the producers went for it here. This after all, was the mid-90’s where virtual reality concepts were everywhere in popular culture, martial arts computer games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat dominated the video game market and arcades, and if you’re looking for a fresh gimmick to justify another movie with the guys from Talons, it certainly fits. Furthermore, a plot centered around virtual reality allows for an organic reason to bring in waves of colorful opponents who only exist to have fight scenes with our heroes and show off particular styles.
The problem is that when the audience knows that one opponent is just a computer program we can’t engage in the power of the fight because we know we’re not watching real people try and outmaneuver one another. Now you may be thinking “Well, we’re never watching that, these are just movies” but the suspension of disbelief– the thrilling moment when our senses give in to the spectacle and we believe we’re watching real combat, that’s the whole magic of martial arts films.
So you get kind of a paradox with this film: the fights and stunts are better than in Talons, but the central gimmick of the story renders the improved choreography inert and distracts from the central power of them. Make no mistake, this is a more assured collection of action set pieces than Talons but as soon as we’re transported into the virtual world we’re taken right out of the action. The climatic fights mercifully limit the FX to a laser grid death trap and generally deliver on quality but when you’re bored and disengaged from the entire second act, all the film really has left to fall back on is camp value and that’s not nearly enough.
Will McGuire’s Rating: 4/10