Every decade has had its definitive action directors, and with the 00’s waning down, it’s time for action junkies look for the next big thing in slam-bang cinema. Unfortunately, it looks as if cgi based, bigger-than-life, product placement garbage is here to stay, at least in the mainstream. So imagine my surprise when a film comes along and evokes the pedigree of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Frank Miller (among many, many others), instead of the big budget, post production heavy action epics that Bay and his peers and cronies have been pumping out like clockwork for the better part of the last 10 dreadful years. Angel of Death is that film, a shockingly polished and economic little mob action-thriller, with heavy nods back to the gurus of gun play that shaped the late 80’s and early 90’s with innovation, creativity, and a keen eye on what has worked in the past and what needs to be injected with some modernity.
The film stars Zoe Bell, who many will recognize as Tarantino’s stunt woman turned actress who stole the show during his half of of Grindhouse, cleverly titled Deathproof. The story concerns Eve (Zoe Bell) as a mob hit woman, and a phenomenal one at that. On what seems like a routine hit, an unforeseen change in the targets daughters after school plan flips of the mission on its head, and Eve is forced to take out two extra security guards, and put a bullet into the teenagers eye socket, but not before she is stabbed straight down in the top of her skull with a combat knife. After miraculously surviving the ordeal that would have taken the life of any lesser, and less fortunate, agent, she is haunted by the spirits of her past victims, who lead her to avenge their deaths by taking down her employers and putting a dent in their operations. Behind her rampage though, there are some crooked dealing going down, and the mob itself is experiencing a power vacuum, to which many heirs feel that the empty throne is theirs to claim.
Zoe is the main course on this buffet, and with her amazing physical ability to perform all her own stunts and action sequences, distinguishing New Zealand (read: NOT AUSSIE, they hate when you call them that), and the unforced nature about which she handles weapons, she is every bit the heroine many big name actors (::cough:: Angelina Jolie ::cough::) only wish they could be. She also has a knack for acting, and uses mannerisms and facial expressions like a pro in order to show her unshakable resolve and new found righteous determination. Her accent never gets in the way either, and it doesn’t wind up making her feel out of place somehow, even within the very American city the story unfolds in. Doug Jones (Abe Sapien from the Hellboy series) also lends his talents to Angel of Death, and brings some much needed humor and awkwardness to his role of “secret and relatively piss poor mob doctor.” Ted “I’ll do anything for a paycheck and I love him for it” Raimi pops up for about 30 seconds before he gets his head blown off with a shotgun. The rest of the cast is a mix of little knowns and TV character actors who all do a fine job, but aren’t really worthy of detailed explanation. Our bad guys are genuinely bad, smart, and relentless, and our good guys are fleshed out enough for us to care about what happens to them. For a movie that doesn’t even crack 80 minutes in length (including the credits), this is more than enough acting cred to keep things moving along briskly and keep us glued.
Behind the camera, we get the duo of Paul Etheredge (director) and Ed Brubaker, who up until now, I can’t credit with doing anything that has hit my personal radar. That isn’t to slight them of course, as the writing and directing for Angel of Death pushes the very limits of what is clearly a limited budget, which is very high praise in my book. There is no wasted time, and the polished and very stylish nature of the film mesh well with the fast-paced, no nonsense approach to the dialogue and set pieces. The editing and transitions are particularly eyebrow-raising, as they have that distinct grindhouse feel to them, while also playing kind of like panels of a comic book, but instead of stills in the panels, we get different moving shots of the same thing happening. For instance, if a character walked up to a door of a building, we may get three shots of it on screen at once in comic book panel form, with each shot being from a different perspective. It plays great, looks great, and is never abused. Film grain, super saturation of colors, and some very washed out colors are used with great effect, but not reckless impunity which can turn a clever idea into a cheap gimmick in a heartbeat. The natural flow to the dialogue also gives the characters a realistic feel, and doesn’t make the error of making an otherwise genius villain look dumb just for the sake of letting our hero off the hook or drawing things out longer than need be. There is even a novel little twist that comes towards the third act that provides great incentive for the viewer not to become complacent and take what is happening for granted in between shootouts and fisticuffs. All in all, the camera is both intelligent and glamorous, and this technique only serves to lift the script and action to greater heights.
The music is mainly a stock sounding rock-a-billy thing, with moments of standard movie score style work throw in as well. It isn’t terrifically noteworthy, but it never gets in the way either, and after the first few scenes, I forgot it was even there. The sound effect work is spot on, with gunshots ringing loud and clear, punches registering with the appropriate amount of force and volume, and the speech of all the characters clearly audible and not drowned out. As stated earlier, the film is clearly working on a small budget, but the locations and use of color are all very wise, and you never get the feeling as a viewer that the same location with one or two cosmetic changes is being used over and over and over again. Stunt and fight choreography is tight and believable, save for the knife in the head and a dangerous drop from a second story window onto a car of course. The movie is brutal, but not overly bloody and excessive. Where a squib or two would have made a bullet wound pop out a little more, the fast pace to the violence and well placed camera eye make up for whatever shortcuts the film makers might have taken in order to cut costs and keep the production moving. Like so many aspects of this film, I’m very impressed with how polished everything looks and sounds, and that is often the best you can hope for in the world of Indie film. You have to take what you can afford and know you can work with, and even if you are given oranges, some talented people out there can still make that taste like sweet, sweet lemonade.
Angel of Death hits me in the same spot El Mariachi did, which of course was the film Robert Rodriguez made on a shoe-string budget before he basically remade with a much larger budget and better cast and called it Desperado. In El Mariachi, all the elements of superior action film making were there in droves, but the ideas were so big and innovative, that they required some proper funding. I’m hoping Etheredge and Brubaker get that same treatment, since everything about Angel of Death is screaming out for someone to give them a bigger budget to work with, but not necessarily a better cast, as I am quite fond of the one on display here. It’s brisk and very efficient, and it looks like a champion even though it may go home to a cardboard box at night. Angel of Death is, so far, THE sleeper/below the radar/indie action film of the year, and I would urge anyone who likes a little bit of the pew-pew and pow-pow to hustle up and get on board with this one.
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