Review: Expect No Mercy (1995)
Review by Zeus | 2015-04-04
It was a time before IMDb, a time when you could catch a movie midway through and have no idea what the hell you were watching. Those who were fortunate enough to watch one of these late night mystery movies were often haunted by the experience, never sure if what they saw was real, or just the product of a sleep-deprived imagination.
All I Could Remember Was...
I saw this once in the mid 90s. All I could remember was...
- There was some sort of remote health club or desert oasis guarded by armed goons dressed in black.
- People were forced to fight in a virtual reality tournament that looked like the world's crappiest digitized fighting game.
Eventually, I began to worry I'd mixed up two different movies. A cushy campus patrolled by armed goons straight out of Final Sacrifice? A virtual reality Kumite? There was no way all this weirdness could be found in one movie.
But no, it exists.
God help us, it exists.
Expect No Mercy
Expect No Mercy stars Billy Blanks, otherwise known as "the Tae Bo guy," and "No, you're thinking of Wesley Snipes." He's recruited by the FSB to infiltrate the Virtual Arts Academy, the front for an organization of deadly mercenaries trained not by ninja masters, but with virtual reality.
The opening credits unfold across a virtual fly-through of a deserted polygon city. It looks proof of concept -- the kind of thing you'd show investors to raise funds to make the actual thing. But before you can get all nostalgic for FMV adventure games, the movie cuts straight to the action.
A team of high tech hitmen are sent to assassinate the owner of a heavily guarded mansion. These cybermercs wear head cams and are armed much as you'd expect: with bullwhips and pet iguanas.
Even though the target is an old guy with a mansion, poolside babes, and sleazy "80s executive" pony tail, he's actually one of the good guys. You can tell, because he treats HIS goons with respect. The same can't be said for Warbeck (Wolf Larson), leader of the organization, a Kung Fu Fabio who barks orders from the comfort of his control room.
Damian (Anthony De Longis) gets the kill of the movie when he reels the target in with a bullwhip, snaps his neck, and catches the poor guy's drink in midair. (Rumor has it the UK release edited out the snapped neck, which might explain the alternate title, Expect Some Mercy.)
Billy Blanks works as a trainer for the FSB, which according to Wikipedia stands for Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, the "principal security agency of the Russian Federation" and successor to the KGB. That would be your first clue that this seemingly American action movie is actually Canadian.
Blanks is called in after the last undercover agent was killed while investigating Warbeck. He arrives at the Virtual Arts Academy, which is ostensibly some sort of... visual effects school? Fine, it's a play on martial arts, but "Virtual Arts Academy" just sounds like the kind of place you'd go to learn how to render CGI movies based on snack food mascots. Surely fewer eyebrows would have been raised if the class of musclebound mullet-men had poured out of a Kickboxing Academy instead.
After turning his baseball cap backwards and unzipping his jacket, Billy is accepted into the Academy under the assumed name Justin Vanier. This, coincidentally, also doubles as his character's actual name.
Justin is given a tour by Vicki, played by a ridiculously cute looking Laurie Holden (Silent Hill, The Walking Dead). In a genre filled with bottle blond model wannabes, Holden is arguably the best actor on set, and certainly the only one who'd go on to find any success in Hollywood.
Vicki claims their virtual reality technology can "compress twenty years of training into a two year program." Not only that, but each student is "escorted to a better sense of self-being on a physical, mental and spiritual level." Scenarios range from out of body experiences to skydiving, and even having sex. (Justin's response to this is similar to an eight year old boy learning where babies come from).
Justin puts on the VR helmet for two seconds before taking it off and complaining, "I don't like it." He sits through a surreal lecture given by the floating heads of Vicki and her colleague Eric. Billy looks skeptical, but that won't stop him from achieving the ultimate training goal -- beating a Level 5 opponent -- his very first try.
This gets to be something of a reoccurring theme throughout the movie: Justin Vanier doesn't learn to master virtual reality so much as dismiss it from the start, robbing the film of both stakes and character development. I'm not a huge stickler for character arcs, but I have to admit, the do tend to make things more interesting. Rick Deckard started out hating robots and wound up dating and even being one, depending on the cut. Han Solo started out only helping himself and wound up helping to bring down the Empire. Harrison Ford started out making good movies. Like I said, character arcs aren't necessary, but they do tend to make things more interesting.
Justin's first experience with online gaming involves being harassed by a flabby troll with a bad facial hair, whose anti-noob tirade eerily predicts the rise of Xbox Live. After they get in a scuffle IRL, Justin swipes a key card from one of the guards and meets up with his man on the inside: Eric, a hacker played by the film's producer, Jalal Merhi, who is billed on Wikipedia as "Beirut's Steven Seagal." (It's a comparison that somehow seems unfair to both Jalal Merhi and Steven Segal.) With the help of Vicki, they must break into Warbeck's computer system and gather enough evidence to pull the plug on his deadly operation.
Null sweat, chummer.
Making the mission slightly more challenging is the fact that Justin is ridiculously technophobic. For a guy sent to infiltrate the lair of an evil computer genius, Justin is so bad with "this techno crap" that he's stopped in his tracks by an electronic lock even after obtaining the key card. While Eric and Vicki struggle to crack the system, Justin gets bored, wanders off, and runs into trouble. He's like an action hero who doubles as his own hapless sidekick. It doesn't help that Vicki thinks the two are really industrial spies and takes the first opportunity to sound the alarm.
Before Justin and Eric can escape, the ever-smirking Damian takes them out with a sleep dart crossbow. The two are then locked into their goofy VR headsets so the computer can copy their best moves.
WARBECK: "Who do you have in mind?"
DAMIAN: "Well, I don't know. I've always favored Fango."
Fango is THE BEST. He's looks like what would happen if the The Ultimate Warrior joined the Legion of Doom and fought dinosaurs on Planet Hulk.
Just 40 minutes in, we have our first big virtual reality fight scene: gloriously stupid, gloriously fun. It's no wonder this movie stuck with me after all these years. Punches sound like laser blasts, backgrounds are like 16-color .GIFs, and everything -- everything -- glows. The walls, the attacks, even Billy Blanks. Especially Billy Blanks. Our heroes are attacked by everything from a Samurai to a Dominatrix, and the stages are almost as varied: A roman coliseum, a boxing ring on the moon, even a circus filled with deadly clowns, and, I kid you not, the worst lens flares in the history of recorded media.
Looking for a grown man dressed as clown to use as personal speed bag. Must supply own wig. Clown nose optional.
Warbeck and Damian wander off to oversee an important hit, leaving a totally underutilized Billy Drago in charge. [Edit: That's not Billy Drago, but the awesomely named Lazar Rockwood.] Vicki shows up, kicks
Drago Lazar's ass, rescues the heroes and warns them of Warbeck's nefarious plans.
The focus then shifts the unlikeliest of safe houses: a picturesque cottage on the edge of a forest so enchanted, you can practically spot the Disney location scouts. Justin Vanier's government buddies are there to hide a star witness until he can testify against an evil banker type. Said evil banker has hired Warbeck to ensure that never happens. What looks like an easy job for Damian, his iguana-toting sidekick Alexander, and rest of the cybermercs gets complicated when the banker insists on visual confirmation, meaning they have to ditch the original plan (dynamite) and focus on more traditional forms of assault.
I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but usually when action heroes no-sell explosions, they do so without being fully engulfed in flame.
Justin & the Vaniettes arrive in time to save the witness, which pisses off Warbeck so much he orders Damian to take out Alexander. This leads to a hilariously touching shot of Alexander's pet iguana sitting on his chest, trying to administer iguana CPR. The surviving cybermercs kidnap Vicki, blow up Justin's truck, and retreat to the Academy. At this point the witness throws his arms up, says he'd have been better off with the assassins, and storms out of the movie. But Justin has more pressing concerns: Warbeck has wired his own Academy to explode!
The fact that this shootout is arguably the high point of the movie sort of underlines the main problem with Expect No Mercy: it never fully utilizes its virtual reality gimmick. Remember the first big VR fight I mentioned earlier? Well, it's also the last. Midway through, cyberspace is all but forgotten, overshadowed by real life car chases, hostage rescues, and a mad dash to defuse bombs placed throughout the Academy.
The filmmakers missed a huge opportunity to infuse virtual reality with actual stakes. And lest you think I'm arguing for some tired, "If you die in VR, you die in real life" cliche, think again: Just have each bomb guarded by a VR boss. Fail to beat the boss, and the bomb explodes! That would have been perfect. You'd have had the mad computer genius Warbeck, throwing his worst at Justin to slow him down. You'd have had the technophobic hero, mastering virtual reality to save the day. And you'd have had a big, cheesy main event that actually makes something of the premise.
But no, Justin's ultimate cyber showdown with Warbeck lasts less than a minute before Warbeck is like, LOL! You forgot to defuse some bombs, this is a huge waste of time! And that's it. No more virtual reality, just big dumb direct-to-video reality.
90s VR movies were notoriously cheesy, but they succeeded, to an extent, because they reveled in it. Lawnmower Man didn't seem this embarrassed, and it was freaking LAWNMOWER MAN. Here's a scifi movie that thinks computers and videogames are lame, which is weird, considering the spin-off fighting game on Windows 3.1 (the manliest of operating systems). It seems the filmmakers had something in common with ol' Justin: they didn't have time for this silly nerd stuff. But nerd stuff is the only reason I tracked it down in the first place. You won't catch me paying $10 to import many normal Canadian action movies.
As far as action heroes go, Billy Blanks excels on a technical level (not blinking while firing a gun), but stumbles over day-to-day human operations (talking, not looking like a robot). He mumbles most of his lines, and in his scenes with the Muscles from
Brussels Beirut Jalal Merhi, you wish the cheap VHS-to-DVD transfer had subtitles. Warbeck fares a bit better: Wolf Larson serves as stark reminder of the dangers of implanting Jeffrey Combs' brain in the body of Brian Thompson. He has a speech on the role of power and government that's both weirdly brilliant and total hogwash -- in other words, a perfect rant for the megalomaniacal leader of a cult of cyber-ninjas. And last but not least, Damian, a man so smug he even smirks during shootouts. De Longis has worked on everything from General Hospital to Star Trek: Voyager and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. He does the "scheming soap opera villain" thing no matter what the part, and now I want to hunt down more of his stuff. Even his death scene is great, thanks in part to the only good one-liner of the movie:
DAMIAN: You surprise me, I didn't think you were this good. ERIC: You surprise me, I didn't know you could think.
Ignore your frustration with what could have been and there's still something to like about Expect No Mercy, especially for fans of cheesy straight-to-video action movies. It's got that full 90s color palette, nicely choreographed fights, and Laurie Holden is a welcome presence in a movie full of big dumb meatheads. What little VR we do get is so unbelievably bad it's quite good -- just don't expect Full Moon's Arcade, or even Gamebox 1.0.