Friday, May 27, 2016

A Grime Fairytale: THE DARK BACKWARD



        
Some movies just make you feel dirty.  It usually comes from watching gritty, unpleasant characters do unappealing things.  You might even feel like you need to take a shower afterwards.  Be aware, after watching THE DARK BACKWARD, there is not enough soap in the world to make you feel clean again.  If you can stomach it, there’s actually a lot of fun to be had.


The Capsule:
Perpetually sweaty sad sack Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) is a garbage man by day, standup comic by night, and terrible at both.  His jokes fail to generate anything but apathy.  He is encouraged to continue by his best friend and human cockroach, Gus (Bill Paxton).  Marty’s depressing life takes an unexpected turn when he grows a third arm out of his back.  He looses his nightclub standup gig, his horrified girlfriend, Rosarita (Lara Flynn Boyle) leaves him, and his mother won’t look at him.  But Gus and sleazebag agent Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton) immediately scheme to exploit Marty’s freakish condition to push him, and them, into fame and fortune.  But even with three arms, happiness is always just out of Marty’s reach. 


To call THE DARK BACKWARD a black comedy is a severe understatement.  It’s more of a grime fairytale.  Everything in the film, people included, seems to be coated in a layer of oily filth.  It almost permeates the screen.  Even the opening credits seem to be written in grease.  It’s based in a nameless city during an undefined time period.  Going by the clothes, it seems to be the 1950’s or early ‘60’s, but it has more of a stagnant, timeless feel to it.  It certainly isn’t anywhere in reality.  The city is dank, dirty, and covered in trash (the garbage men don’t so much as pick up the trash as spread it around).  There is no sunshine, no one is happy (except Gus), and there doesn’t seem to be any hope of it getting better.  It’s like the Anti-Disneyland.   If this movie had a Tinker Bell, she would have syphilis.  


The movie has a number of interesting parallels to the Disney adjacent WALL*E.  Both are set in a world composed of garbage.  Both are worlds people seem to have given up on.  The big difference is that instead of leaving little robots to clean things up, the departing humans left behind a bunch of losers and creeps to make things worse.  And like WALL*E’s Buy N Large, the world of THE DARK BACKWARD has its own ubiquitous commercial monopoly, Blump’s.  It seems to have a hand in everything from sanitation to musical instruments, but it specializes in food products.  Terrifying food products.  Billboards advertise Blump’s Squeezable Bacon, commercials hawk Blump’s Cheddar Scented Cheese, refrigerators are filled with Blump’s Pork Juice.  Blump’s is the detail that completes the twisted fairytale world, making it feel real and (thankfully) unreal at the same time.  Of course Blump’s is the corporation that would cater to and rule this world.  Like the Radiation-Free Reindeer Steaks from HARDWARE, it’s perfect product placement. 


The movie doesn’t really have a hero, it has a schlub.  Judd Nelson is almost unrecognizable as Marty Malt.  He somehow transformed himself from the angry tough guy in THE BREAKFAST CLUB to a human version of Golum.  He’s pale and skinny and always hunched over.  The only difference is Golum told better jokes.  He’s so timid, hiding behind his coke bottle glasses, greasy hair, and oceans of flop sweat, it seems more like he’s on a firing squad line instead of behind a microphone.  His jokes are so bad that the depressed patrons of Syd’s Nightclub don’t even bother to heckle him.  They just stare blankly, or quietly sob, and continue to slowly drink themselves to death.  Tough room. 


Despite being a schlub, Marty isn’t completely alone.  His accordion slinging friend Gus is the best thing about the movie, and all because of Bill Paxton’s manic performance.  The character is possibly the most vile, disgusting person ever created, but Paxton plays him with such relish he is almost lovable.  Okay, lovable is the wrong term.  Horrible fascination is more accurate.  It’s like seeing footage of someone popping a particularly ripe pimple.  You don’t want to watch, but you can’t turn away.  Gus is the only person who seems to legitimately enjoy living in this world of filth.  He’s a figurative pig in literal shit.  His greatest talent is not his accordion playing, it’s his ability to eat things that would kill any normal person.  Or animal.  He digs into putrid chicken like it was fresh out of the fryer.  He’s actually delighted to find a half-eaten sandwich discarded in the landfill.  


He also has the least erotic sex scene ever committed to film, and this is after he licks a corpse.


Continuing the Disney analogy, Gus is the Jiminy Cricket to Marty’s Pinocchio.  He relentlessly encourages Marty in his quest to become a real comic.  Most of his encouragement, though, is blatantly dishonest and self-serving.  It might make Marty momentarily feel better, but it usually just makes things worse.  When Marty sprouts the extra arm, Gus actively exploits the situation to tag along into the limelight (or at least that world’s grim, sad version of the limelight).  He emotionally bullies Marty into doing things he doesn’t want to, and guilts him into being grateful.  Just when you think he might have the slightest genuine regard for his friend, Gus (somehow) seduces Marty’s ex-girlfriend to insure no positive influences can get close to him.


Almost as bad is Wayne Newton’s sleazy agent Jackie Chrome, who is so insincere he might as well have dollar signs instead of pupils.  With his shiny, colorful suits and drawn-on mustache (sometimes crookedly), he’s actually the movie’s classiest character.  That’s saying something.  What’s great about Jackie Chrome is that he is only marginally more successful at promoting Marty than Gus.  He changes Marty’s name to Desi the Three Armed Wonder Comic, gives him a full makeover that doesn’t change his appearance in any way, and books him on a horrifying kids TV show, The Twinky Doodle Amateur Showcase.  Marty’s brand new act consists of him doing a slow twirl to show off his third arm after telling the same terrible jokes. 


There is no explanation for why Marty grows a third arm.  It starts off as a lump on his back.  When he goes to see Dr. Scurvy, played brilliantly by James Caan, the doctor just berates him and slaps a band-aid on it.  He does the same thing when Marty returns with a baby hand sticking out of his back.  The joke of the movie is that Marty never does anything with the arm.  It’s merely a freakish accessory, highlighting what a weirdo he is.  No one can look further than the obvious gimmick.  It’s sort of implied that Marty doesn’t even have full control of the arm, it seems to have a mind of its own.  It might be the most sympathetic character in the movie.  When Marty is looking longingly through a window at his ex-girlfriend, the arm pats him on the shoulder.  It provides more comfort than any whole person in Marty’s life.


[SPOILER for the end]  Keeping with the theme, shit just gets worse for Marty.  Just when he finally gets the attention of a reputable talent scout, Dirk Delta (played by Rob Lowe), and is bound for Hollywood, his third arm disappears.  Both Gus and Jackie are furious with him, as if he somehow did it on purpose.  Marty convinces Jackie to call Dirk, be honest, and see what happens.  Jacky nervously spills the beans and waits for the rejection, but his face lights up at the response.  Beaming, he relays the message to an eager Marty and Gus.  “They said…send the accordion player.”  Gus and Jackie do not give Marty a second thought before hopping into a limo and leaving him in the dust.  Marty tries to reconnect with Rosarita, but she’s gone, too.  He slinks back to the only thing he has left, the open mic at Syd’s Nightclub.  But in the movie’s singular ray of hope, Marty finds that as he relates the pain of his last few days, he starts getting laughs.  Creating a routine on the fly, you can see Marty start to break out of his sad, suffocating shell.  He’s finally able to do what he’s always wanted, to give people a short reprieve from their shity, shity lives.


It’s one of those movies that make me feel a little bad about finding it so funny.  Oddly, it never feels mean spirited.  The misery is evenly spread around.  Even though the undeserving seem to succeed in the end, I doubt they are going to be any happier than when they started.  Their success is built on a sham of happiness.  Marty is the only person to have achieved something genuine, meager though it is.  That seems to be enough for him.


Writer/director Adam Rifkin is pitch perfect with the dark, cynical tone of this movie.  His post BACKWARD work has been all over the place, including a number of family films.  The only one I’ve seen is MOUSEHUNT, which I was pleased to see retained a bit of the Rifkin darkness.   No corpse licking, though.  Probably for the best.


C Chaka

Friday, May 20, 2016

More Than a Mouthful of Action: RAW FORCE

I love an ambitious failure. I love when someone's vision far exceeds their capabilities.  More importantly, I love it when that person realizes this, but pushes ahead valiantly anyway. Sometimes, the ambition overcomes the failure.  Sometimes there is so much heart and passion poured into a project that you have to overlook the obvious shortcomings.  Other times you get a glorious mess that leaves you dumbfounded.  On the rarest occasions, you get Hitler jumping up from behind a tombstone with a rocket launcher.  This and so much more awaits you in 1982’s kung fu/zombie/booze cruise adventure RAW FORCE.
Capsule:
A gang of leering creeps transports a plane full of kidnapped women to a mysterious island. You know these creeps are bad news because their boss is a chubby Hitler in a white suit. He's going by the name Mr. Speer and wearing Clark Kent style glasses, but who is he kidding?  They sell the women to a bunch of weirdo monks for chunks of raw jade, which look a lot like green painted styrofoam, but what do I know about geology. Cut to a cruise liner captained by a perpetually drunk Cameron Mitchell. Three members of the Burbank Karate Club (most likely the only members of the Burbank Karate Club) want to sail to the mysterious Warriors Island.  According to legend (documented on the forbidden island’s travel brochure), disgraced martial artists from around the world go there to die in the hopes of being resurrected.  It’s a long journey, so that leaves them plenty of time to pal around with a sleazy middle-aged horndog, attend drunken parties, and find romance.  Their fun is interrupted when Chubby Hitler’s goons attack their cruise ship to keep them from the island.  They manage to escape, along with a tough SWAT policewoman, a kung fu fighting steward, and a few others, only to wash up on Warriors Island, where the real action is about to begin.  

I so want a Burbank Karate Club tee shirt.  It has to be the dorkiest name ever for a martial arts school, and it fits these guys perfectly.  I’ve seen this movie a few times now, and I still can’t remember any of their names.  The IMDB page doesn’t help much (67 roles listed, four with photos).  I just know them as the stoic romantic, the hothead, and the worthless guy with the mustache who has to be rescued by the other two.  They are competent if unspectacular fighters, though the hothead does a dramatic, slow motion flying kick into a truck.  SWAT Lady is much more impressive, since she’s played by Jillian Kesner, star of the thoroughly entertaining exploitation kung fu flick, FIRECRACKER.  All the other female characters in the movie are pretty stereotypical, but Kesner is a serious ass kicker.  She gets the best kill in the film, or at least the most technically impressive. If I was stuck on a zombie filled island, I'd stick by her. 

The real star of the movie, though, is Cameron Mitchell.  He was slightly past his prime in 1982 (by about 20 years), but you wouldn’t be able to tell from his performance.  Actually, you can instantly tell, but Cameron Mitchell certainly can’t.  He plays Captain Dodds with such gusto that you have to love him.  I’m just not sure what movie he thought he was making.  All the rest of the cast might be hopping around with their high kicks and their fancy stunts and what not, but all Mitchell needs is a revolver and a (off camera) bottle of booze.   He lumbers around like a dangerous grandpa.  While taking cover with the others during a shootout, he tells them, “I saw Clint Eastwood do this in a movie once.”  Then he just stands up and starts firing randomly.  Right, he must have been thinking of that one movie where Clint shoots a gun at something.  I’m betting he improv’d that line.  And his entire part.  You don’t direct Cameron Mitchell, you just roll camera and let him go.

The best (and worst) part of the movie is undeniably the boat party raid.  There are so many things astonishingly wrong with this section.  One of them is that the director apparently decided to film a college frat movie in the middle of his kung fu action movie.  Our BKC heroes go to a boozy social held in the cruise ship’s wood paneled rec room (not someone’s basement, honestly).  There they party down with the sleazy horndog,  his clueless wife, SWAT Lady her sister, tipsy Cameron Mitchel and the horrible cruise director all arguing like the Lockhorns.  Oh, and about 20 people we’ve never seen before.  These aren’t just background extras, these people have multiple, unrelated scenes with full dialogue.  There’s the remarkably average guy who is somehow a chick magnet.  He’s also a devout Christian, or possibly a Satanist, not entirely sure where they were going with that.  There’s the bartender who looks like a human troll doll and smashes blocks of ice with his forehead for no reason.  There’s the gangster’s kinky ex-girlfriend seducing an oblivious square.  There’s the knucklehead in the bathroom who doesn’t understand how pants work attempting to undress the woman from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE while she stands on the toilet drinking a beer.  That was weird.  It’s seriously like two completely unrelated movies accidentally intersected.  

At least they had an exit strategy for getting out of the spontaneous frat movie.  A boat full of Chubby Hitler’s goons sneaks onto the ship and brutally slaughters every extraneous character.  But even this is incredibly bizarre because all of the creeps are dressed like they are infiltrating a Halloween party.  We have a swordsman in a silver Ziggy Stardust vest three sizes too small.  There’s a guy in Kabuki face paint and a balaclava.  A dude dressed like the Village People construction worker.  One of them is wearing a Superman shirt (most likely not endorsed by DC Comics).  One is in ski goggles and bumblebee pants.  It's all pretty amazing.  I’m fairly sure the Costume Designer was the director’s 8 year old niece.  I’m amazed no one was wearing fairy wings or tutus.  

The best part is that this section is played entirely straight.  These are serious criminals.

The survivors of the doomed frat ship eventually wash ashore on Warriors Island.  After a firefight in a graveyard with the remnants of Chubby Hitler’s men, our heroes (plus the horndog) meet the monks and learn the truth of the island.  It’s the same truth that was spelled out in the travel brochure, except that it turns out the monks get the power of resurrection from eating people.  Mostly women, so maybe it has something to do with estrogen.  Either that or they are just sexist cannibals.  On a side note, this may be the only movie where the zombies don’t try to eat you, but the living do.  Also, it’s never explained why the monks are resurrecting the dead martial arts warriors anyway, since they never do anything with them.  The zombies just shuffle around the island, slashing the occasional undeserving victim or very deserving horndog [SPOILER FOR SOMETHING YOU WERE WAITING FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE].  I don’t see why any martial arts warrior would bother coming there to die in the first place, disgraced or not.  It’s not a thrilling afterlife.  They don’t even get a training montage.

The last part of the movie is a long fight against blue skinned ninjas and samurai zombies as our heroes make their way to Chubby Hitler’s plane.  The cannibal monks don’t fight, by the way.  They just walk around laughing and looking way too pleased with themselves.  Seriously, they stop just short of high-fiving each other.  They get no comeuppance at all, other than having to live on a boring island with a bunch of zombies.  At least their supply line of tasty prostitutes has dried up, so that sort of sucks for them.  


Chubby Hitler, on the other hand, gets a much more satisfying end.  [SPOILER]  He jumps into a lake while trying to escape, despite the clear warnings over and over during the movie that it is filled with ferocious Asian Piranha.  It’s even mentioned in the travel brochure.  Just to make sure you know what’s happening, he actually says “I’m being eaten by piranha!”  Cue the piranha stock footage, some bloody makeup, and a few plastic fish pinned to his suit, and Chubby Hitler gets his just dessert.  Or just becomes dessert.

This was director Edward D. Murphy’s first film, and he jam packed it with as much awesome as he could fit into one movie.  Then he stuffed about three more movies into it.  He wound up with the most demented episode of Fantasy Island ever.  It is literally an embarrassment of riches.  Very, very cheap riches.  And in the enthusiastic spirit of the movie, it ends with TO BE CONTINUED…  Only in our hearts, Edward D. Murphy, only in our hearts.
C Chaka  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Insanely Fast: REDLINE



Japan, land of the rising sun and robot hotels, has its own special brand of crazy.  A million different influences are filtered through its unique cultural outlook.  This is especially evident in its movies. Sometimes they can be too obsessive to hold my attention.  Occasionally they can be so disturbing I don't even want to translate the title, much less watch it. Often, though, they hit a sweet spot between relatable and unexpectedly bizarre.  This is why BATTLE ROYALE is so much more interesting than its slick, melodramatic western ripoff, HUNGER GAMES.  Japan's cartoons are probably the purest distillation of this. Anime is unbound by anything but imagination. I’ve been out of the anime game for a while, but a recent recommendation pulled me back in.  Weirdly, it’s a movie about car racing.  For a movie to get me interested in car racing, it would have to be pretty special.  REDLINE is pretty special.

The Capsule:
Years after transitioning to fancy “air cars”, traditional car racing has gone underground.  By traditional racing I mean no rules vehicular mayhem over miles of dangerous terrain driven by aliens and cyborgs firing missiles and grappling hooks at each other.  I’m not that familiar with NASCAR, but I’m assuming it’s similar.  The most popular and most dangerous of these events is the Redline.  The long shot this year is “Sweet” JP, a human rocking a huge pompadour and a badass yellow muscle car.  He is only in on a technicality after being “accidentally” blown up by his mobbed up partner Frisbee just before finishing the qualifying race.  His competition is considerably more intimidating.  There’s Machine Head, a huge cyborg with a piston shaped skull and his own theme music who is literally built into his vehicle.  The Mad Brothers, Lynchman and Johnny Boya, are a pair of bounty hunters with a penchant for sabotage.  Gori Rider is a renegade cop who plays by his own rules, most of which involve demolishing people.  The Super Boins are glammed up psychotic sex starlets from Supergrass, “a planet ruled by a princess with magical powers.”  The odds on favorite is Sonoshee, a perky but single minded human racer with a tricked out hover car.  The chances of surviving, much less winning, are astronomically low, though, since this year’s Redline is set on Roboworld.  The ultraconservative militaristic autocracy that rules Roboworld considers itself the moral paragon of the known galaxy and will stop at nothing to wipe out the lowlife racing scum.

First off the bat, this movie is gorgeous.  It is practically all hand drawn cell animation, as far as I can tell.  It’s beautiful from the opening frame, and that’s literally a shot of garbage.  Scenes of actual pretty things look even better.  The animation seems to be a mix of styles, all working perfectly together.  Sometimes it reminded me of non-Japanese stuff like Aeon Flux or HEAVY METAL.  You don’t need to know shit about animation to appreciate this, though, only eyeballs.  
 
Second off the bat, this movie is mind-bogglingly insane.  It’s the kind of movie Vin Diesel’s character from THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS would dream up after watching a STAR WARS marathon while on peyote.  There are so many bizarre layers swimming around together that it’s almost overwhelming.  There are some parts that are literally indescribable.  As in, I cannot figure a way of accurately describing them.  They look cool, though.  
The alien designs are outstanding.  There are dog people, guys with “T” shaped heads, guys with no skin who are extremely emotionally sensitive, tiny parrot headed swindlers in track suits.  JP’s partner Frisbee is some kind of reptilian dude with narrow bands of regular flesh across his scaly face, like a stencil pattern.  Even his crusty mechanic, Old Man (or Pops, if you are reading the subtitles) is 8 feet tall with four arms and moves around like a spider.  After all that, the cyborgs from Roboworld seem quaint. 

And speaking of those assholes, Roboworld is a piece of work.  It’s like Donald Trump’s vision of a future utopia.  The whole moral angle is bullshit, they are just scared people will find out about their sneaky deals and plots.  We’re first introduced to the President of Roboworld as he’s complaining about all the refugees on one of their habitable but kind of shitty moons.  They can’t touch the racers who are using the moon as sort of an Olympic Village because they gave the refugees autonomy in exchange for staying out of Roboworld proper.  Now all they can do is whine about it and try to intimidate the racers.  Once they set foot (or wheel, or hover) on Roboworld, though, the top brass plans to obliterate them with an orbital cannon.  Luckily, Redline is a big deal in the galaxy, and the organizers sabotage the cannon and cause enough of a diversion to get the competitors in.  They are still being dropped into the middle of a war zone, however.  Roboworld throws everything they have at the racers, including a massively powerful illegal bioweapon that looks like a giant plasma baby.  It’s named Funky Boy.  Because why not name your secret superweapon Funky Boy?  You would think this was in response to a full scale planetary invasion, but no, it’s just to stop a bunch of racers.  Slight overreaction, if you ask me.
Not that the racers themselves are harmless.  With the exception of JP, everyone’s vehicle is loaded with missiles, machine guns, eyeball lasers, and other dangerous racing accessories.  Some of the missiles have faces and laugh manically when launched.  The Super Boins’ lady car transforms into a full-on (and ludicrous) humanoid mecha.  All of this is fully sanctioned, even encouraged, by the Redline organizers.  They seem oblivious to any corruption or unfair advantages as long as the competition remains popular and brings in the money.  You know, kind of like FIFA.  

For those of you who thought the physics in the Wachowski’s SPEED RACER was too grounded in reality, REDLINE should be right up your alley.  Virtually everything that happens in this movie would kill a normal person.  JP goes so fast he begins hemorrhaging from his nose, and that was just in the qualifying race.  It would be impossible to control any of these vehicles.  The conditions are so extreme that even little Anakin Skywalker would sit this shit out.  At one point, JP’s car spins like a top and skips over the water, only to recover afterwards.  In the context of this movie, it seems plausible enough.  The action is so far over the top, you just go with it.  

It gets so crazy near the end that, in order to stop the out of control Funky Boy, one of the Roboworld generals transforms himself into a giant, um, thing?  That’s one of the indescribable moments I was talking about.  So, suddenly in the middle of a race movie, there’s a huge kaiju (monster) fight.  Who wins?  No idea.  Once the racers get past the battling beasties, it’s never brought up again.  If it’s not part of the race, it’s incidental.

At its core, though, REDLINE is a simple underdog sports story.  JP is like the lifeline, just hold on to his story and you’ll make it through unharmed.  He’s a great anchor for the movie.  Even though he’s established as a rebel with a devil-may-care attitude, he’s also a pretty good guy.  He has a laid back charm that’s easy to like.  He’s fiercely loyal to his friends (even to those who don’t deserve it), relentlessly confident (but not cocky), and fearless.  He’s even a romantic.  Sonoshee catches his eye because of her racing prowess and determination, not just because she’s a cutie.  Their chemistry together is very sweet.

[Spoiler]  When Sonoshee’s vehicle is taken out of commission, JP even lets her continue the race in his car.  She’s not just a spectator or a passenger.  They become a real team, working together towards the common goal.  The two of them cozied up in JP’s one person cockpit is pretty sexy, even.  It reminded me of the trunk scene with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez from OUT OF SIGHT, except ridiculously more unsafe.  

[Even more of a SPOILER] The end of the race takes it just as far as it could possibly go.  JP is pushing it so hard in the last stretch against Machine Head that his car completely disintegrates.  His and Sonoshee’s bodies are sent hurling across the finish line a millisecond before Machine Head.  Either there was some kind of anti-gravity safety net or it was a mystically transcending experience, because they just float together in each other’s arms instead of becoming red paste.  The best thing, though, is the reactions of all the other racers.  They are all happy for JP and Sonoshee, even the ones who were trying to kill them a few minutes before.  I think it’s because they know it was an amazing finish to the race.  And it’s all about the race.

I would like to know what happened to Funky Boy, though.

C Chaka

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dead Sexy Clever: THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT

It's pretty obvious to anyone who's familiar with my writing that I have a thing for strong, kick-ass women characters. I also have a thing for clever dialogue (you may not have guessed that from my writing). Twenty years ago, Shane Black married the two into one tough talking, bullet spewing, ice skating package.  I'm talking about the woefully underrated THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. 
The Capsule:
Cheerful, pie-making Samantha Cain has a wonderful life as a small town teacher and mother.  The only trouble is everything about her life eight years prior is a blank.  That is until a nasty car accident knocks loose a few hidden fragments.  Skills that she never knew about begin to resurface.  So do old enemies.  To protect her family, Samantha goes on the road with her bottom of the barrel private detective, Mitch Henessey, in search of her past.  It turns out that before Samantha’s cozy domestic bliss, she was a thoroughly badass government assassin named Charly Baltimore.  A lot of people want Samantha dead for what she knew and what she might find out about a massive terrorist plot in the works.  But the harder they come at her, the more Charly comes out.  And Charly does not fuck around.  Both Charly and Samantha will need to come together, though, in order to save her daughter from the man responsible for nearly taking her out eight years ago.
Charlene Baltimore is, in my opinion, one of the most badass female characters ever, right up there with Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Imperator Kathy Furiosa.  She’s smart, deadly, and tough as nails.  Unlike her peers, though, she also has a wicked sense of humor and seems to really enjoy her work (that being killing people).  Baltimore is a perfect name for her.  You don’t want to fuck with someone named Charly Baltimore.  You might fuck with someone named Charly Akron, or Charly Newark, but not Charly Baltimore.  She’s supremely confident and just a little bit cocky.  It’s clear she can back it up, though.  When a clueless would-be rapist pulls a gun on her,  Charly thinks he's part of a larger ambush and keeps looking past him.  Just one guy with a gun is so insignificant to her that he can't get her attention.  She and Mitch talk like he wasn't even there.  As soon as she realizes he’s just some chump, she disarms him in a flash and uses him as a human shield when the real threat shows up.  You would feel sorry for him if he wasn't a piece of shit.
Another clear indicator of her epic badass status is the fact she gets to save Samuel L “Bad Motherfucker” Jackson over and over.  Normal people don't get to do that.  It’s nice that he doesn’t get all bent out of shape about it.  His character Mitch realizes he is in way over his head and puts all of his macho bullshit aside.  Jackson manages to pull this off without making Mitch look weak.  He maintains an aura of coolness even while wearing some embarrassingly hideous clothes (borrowed from someone else, PULP FICTION style).  Mitch gets a few hero moments, and Charly would not have survived the movie without him, but Mitch wouldn’t have survived the first half hour without Charly.  The partnership is one of the best things about the movie.  Davis and Jackson have great chemistry, not romantically, but as partners.  They are very comfortable together, joking sarcastically and giving each other shit about things.  This is obviously Shane Black’s strong suit as a writer, but Davis and Jackson play it out effortlessly.
Of course, Charly isn’t Charly at the start of the movie.  Samantha’s transformation is the most interesting part of the film.  It happens gradually.  She’s thrilled when she realizes she’s good with a knife, thinking she must have been a chef in her former life.  She slips into full drill sergeant Charly mode to inspire her daughter Caitlin to ice skate solo (“Life is pain, get used to it), not knowing she broke her wrist when she fell.  When super-psycho One-Eyed Jack shows up at her door with a shotgun/grenade launcher (Shane Black must have had it left over from PREDATOR) she is just as freaked out and clumsy as you’d expect of an average house wife in that situation.  As soon as she gets her chance, though, her instincts kick in and she doesn’t hesitate in taking him out.  After that point, Charly’s personality steadily creeps in.  Her language gets saltier, she becomes more casual to the violence.  Every time Samantha accesses her old skill set, Charly gets closer to the surface.  The final breakthrough comes when Samantha is captured and almost drowned by Luke (David Morse), the man she thought was an old fiancé (he was actually her target for assassination, common mistake).  As he tortures her by dunking her into  freezing water, her memories come flooding back.  Samantha goes into the water, Charly comes out.  She makes Luke an ex-fiancé.
Charly wastes no time trying to erase all traces of Samantha.  With a little blonde hair dye and dark make-up, she goes from smiling sweetheart to sexy badass.  It’s sort of like Ally Sheedy’s makeover from THE BREAKFAST CLUB in reverse.  But Charly’s transformation doesn’t end there.  Try as she might, she can’t bury the last eight years of caring for people and being loved.  She has to reach out when her daughter or Mitch is in trouble.  The mixing of her two sides creates the best version of Charly.  It becomes her secret weapon against the main bad guy, Timothy.  He has the same unflappable charm and confidence as Charly, but he’s perfectly willing to blind and cripple a kid to get what he wants.  He only sees her new attachments as a weakness, not realizing how far Charly will go to protect the people she cares about.  
I like the way the new and improved Charly takes advantage of her secret Mommy skills.  She speed skates across a frozen pond to gun down a car of bad guys (sort of like that Olympic event where they ski then target shoot).  She smuggles a flammable liquid in Caitlin’s squeeze-and-pee doll.  As they are escaping a compound full of mercenaries, she comforts her daughter by telling her, “Oh no, baby, you’re not going to die, they are.”    
Shane Black’s dialogue is pretty fantastic.   Even the purposefully goofy bits are funny.  Charly’s former handler, crusty old Nathan (Brian Cox) gets some of the best zingers.  As Mitch is going on animatedly about having just jumped out a window, Nathan replies “Yes, it was very exciting, and tomorrow we go to the zoo.”  A couple of times the bad guys say something clichéd, but I’m not sure it the phrase was new at the time or if it was just to show they weren’t cool enough to get the good lines.  Black sets up a lot of elements that pay off nicely at the end.  Charly’s “Die screaming, motherfucker” scene is just a hair under “Get away from her, you bitch!” as far as triumphantly satisfying cinematic moments go.  

The action is pretty solid for the time (post DIE HARD, pre MATRIX).  More shooting, not as much fancy martial arts.  Davis does a lot of quick, brutal take downs and gets to be very physicalThe heroes both run and drive away from separate fireball explosionsThis was directed by the Finnish wildman Renny Harlin, who also brought us DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER, and another of my favorites, DEEP BLUE SEA.  He was so enamored by Davis’ performance as Charly that he married her.  Three years earlier.  She was that good.

Also, I like that Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE is playing on TV at one point.  It’s like admitting right away that they know I'm going to get the titles all mixed up.  
C Chaka