The skill of tae-bo, the kill of tae-bo.
1. "I didn't know you could think"
In a nutshell Expect No Mercy is the story of Front Side Bus* agent Justin Vanier, played by now Tae Bo superstar Billy Blanks. His mission is to infiltrate the reknowned Virtual Arts Academy, a high-tech martial arts training camp which doubles as a front for a double super secret assassination agency, run by the evil Wolf Larsen, as Warbeck. Much bad martial arts ensues.
The film starts with a hit by Warbeck's boys. Possibly the high point in a movie that never lets off the Action Accelerator, the hit begins with a realistic Virtual Reality sweep through a city and out to the target's country mansion. The 3D sequence is literally in a class of its own, and makes the graphics in, well, just about anything, including that Dire Straits Money For Nothing video, look good. We join the live action sequences as Warbeck's Camp Crusaders reach the edge of the compound. Stealthily kitted out in pitch black combat gear they blend in seamlessly with the bright green grass and trees in the middle of this sunshine filled day. In a sequence that echoes the SAS assault in Patriot Games, the team sneak across the open ground, take up positions behind small trees and shrubberies, and wait for Warbeck's go signal.
The ensuing fight is one sure to go down in history. Highlights include Anthony Delongis as Damian (camp baddie #1, and Warbeck's right hand man) lashing out with his whip and breaking the neck of the "mark", who throws his glass of wine into the air as he dies, the contents going everywhere. In the next slo-mo shot, however, Damian cooly catches the falling glass and takes a sip. As the rest of the team engage, Spyder, played nepotistically by Michael Blanks, brother of your hero and mine Billie, leaps over a small wall and engages a mook in mortal combat. What makes this fight outstanding is Spyder's tendancy to yell "CHA" as he throws his lethal martial arts moves. This combined with a propensity for the mooks to die from falling over, falling through tables, or being punched in the stomach, makes for an entertaining few minutes. Finally, on their way out, whip wielding Damian is snuck up upon by a canny guard. With a gun mere feet away from his back, and only a whip in hand what can he do? Only roll forwards, and with a whip move of stunning imposibility, whip the gun out of the startled guard's hand. You can't pay for this kind of stuff, son, you've just got to live it.
In short order we are introduced to Jordan (in a dead kind of way), who was the police's former contact inside the Virtual Arts acadaemy. Varnier is the best of what's left, and is rushed off in his big pink pick-up to enter Warbeck's layer. The Virtual Arts academy is a large campus like center, filled with people training in various forms of martial arts and doing excercises. Giant pictures of Warbeck hang on the walls, and guards dressed in stylish GuardGarb(tm) patrol the upper levels.
Having unbuttoned his shirt and rotated his cap to acceptable levels, Justin enters the compound and is introduced to one of the great innovations of the film. You see, as this is a Virtual arts academy, there can't be any of this old fashioned sparring (though this does appear to be going on in various shots). No, here sparring is done in small rooms against VR opponents, using headsets and some interesting technology that allows the user of the room to feel the blows from his virtual opponent. Luckily for us all, no one attempts to explain how it works.
The opponents in these virtual booths (of which there are apparently lots, but we only ever see the few around 113) are cleverly designed to replicate real life situations, with a mugger complete with stripy top and Lone Ranger style face mask, a jester and a samurai all making an appearance. Vanier demolishes a few opponents with ease, impressing his blonde, female instructor, Mz Female Lead Vicki, played by Laurie Holden, who recently featured as The Thing's ex in Fantastic Four. We are speedily introduced to the poor man's** Jean Claude, Jalal Merhi as "Eric". He's short, knows some karate, and speaks with a slightly bizarre, and often monotone, accent. To give you an idea of his vast abilities, here is what the trivia section of his imdb biography used to say:
"Apparently an expert martial artist."
Unfortunately for us, an person named "Jalal Merhi" appears to have submitted a more flattering bio to the DB, with tidbits like: "Is known to his admirers as Beiruit's Steven Segal."
While Warbeck is hired to do another hit, on a man under police protection, Justin meets up with Eric and they begin to investigate the academy. Having cunningly stolen a passcard, Eric and Justin begin to sneak into the more secure parts of Warbecks fortress-like school. Unfortunately they are noticed by Vicki, who is persuaded to join up to the forces of good. Once inside, Eric begins hacking into the computer, while Justin goes off for no particularly good reason. Unbeknownst to Eric, Vicki (intentionally) sets of the alarm, before Eric shows her the evidence of Warbecks assassination business. This prompts Vicki to say "shit". However, on my 18 certificate video this has been inexplicably, but humorously, dubbed over with her intoning "shoot". The alarm prompts a series of pole wielding mooks to run down various corridors to be dispatched by Justin. Showing his tactical skills Justin attempts to evade one lot by hiding in a door well, pressing himself into the left hand side, leaving him in full view of the guys he was running away from, as they approach from the right. This moment of genius over, Justin runs downstairs and confronts a slightly higher class of mook, causing him to issue some classic dialogue, along the line of "that virtual stuff, that's crap". Eric does the same, until they end up outside the building, on a rooftop several floors up. Luckily the bad guys didn't know about the converted Vicki, and she escapes with the disk containing the evidence. This is roughly the end of the lad's good fortune however, as Damian shoots them both with tranquilising darts. Warbeck decides to let them live, hooking them both up to the computer to it can "learn their moves". After a brief bit of lauding it over our plucky heros, Warbeck leaves to take care of his teams assault on the police safehouse, which is situated in some woods.
In the mean time, a scientist who looks like an old(er), squished Robert Plant sends wave after wave of cheesy opponents at Eric and Justin, culminating in a whole possy of unlikely characters pounding on the deadly duo. Luckily, Vicki turns up just in time and rescues our heroes, who head off to the next action set piece, at the police safehouse
The fight is, unsuprisingly, a bit crap, and to gloss over the details all the cops die, but the all important Woody Allen-alike witness is kept alive. The scene does contain the films "touching" moment, and an explosion, and there's nothing wrong with that. In the ruckus Vicki was nabbed by the two surviving goons, Damian and Spyder, who leap in a car and speed back towards base. Justin, Eric and Woody leap in another car and set off in an OJ style slow speed chase. Rebelliously defying convention, the cars go in a straight line at a moderate pace, with occasionaly smatterings of gun fire being exchanged. Eventually, the bad guys do the sensible thing and shoot a rocket launcher at our heroes, causing Woody to run off, and give the dynamic duo an excuse to steal a Porsche, which they promptly do.
By the time they reach the academy, things are looking grim. Warbeck has realised the cops are on to him, and decided to set up shop elsewhere. Spyder's downstairs planting bombs all over the place, and Damian has Vicki hanging by a rope over the side of a Big Tower. Eschewing backup, Eric and Justin charge in, Mr Vanier looking for Spyder while the second name-less Eric goes for the girl. Spyder and Justin fight, watched over remotely by Warbeck. While it looks like the baddies may have the upper hand for a while, in the end Spyder learns that justice is thicker than water, and goes down for the count. Ignoring the bombs, Justin heads off after Warbeck, while on the roof Eric encounters Damian.
Justin enters Warbecks offices, seeing him sitting calmly at a desk. He attempts to assault the haircut of evil, but finds that it is only a hologram! Enraged by the trick, he slaps on some virtual goggle, and goes to fight Warbeck in the CyberRealm (or something). Having been mostly whupped, he calls out the evil mastermind, and heads down to the main hall.
On the roof, the fight is not going well for the good guys, as Damian alternates between kicking Erics ass and sawing through the rope that holds Vicki (who is selling her midriff for all it's worth).
Back in the hall Justin has been tricked again, as some kind of VirtualForceFieldGridOfDeath begins to lower down towards him while Warbeck chuckles from the stairs, accusing our hero of being obsolete, and a thing of the past. Justin's not done yet however, throwing a flag pole into a convenient looking box which shuts of the field. Warbeck steps up, and they resume their dance of death.
On the roof, it looks like things are all over for Eric. Damian is whipping him about like a plaything. Then suddenly Eric fights back and scores one hit, and another. Reeling back Damian looks up with suprise and exclaims "I didn't think you were this good!". Eric cooly replies "I didn't know you could think" and kicks him off the tower. Yay Team Good! BUT all is not over. Damian may have the last laugh after all, as Vicki's strained rope finally gives way and she plummets towards her certain doom. At the last minute, Eric leans over the edge and catches the rope with Damians whip, and hauls her up to safety.
In the hall room, Justin and Warbeck are clashing like veritable Titans. Warbeck presses his advantage, until Vanier fights back with a series of massive roundhouse kicks. Battered and bleeding, Warbeck realises he has lost, and Justin makes a little speech. Warbeck tries a move, a la Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, but with a final shot, Justin knocks him out, throws him over his shoulder and runs out as the building explodes.
2. "Is that all you got?"
The always entertaining comment writers on IMDB have a range of opinions. My favourite review is less than complementary, but captures the movies inherent charm:
"I know some of the people who worked on this film, and I still can't stand it. Most of the fight scenes were wooden and boring - your basic B-movie fare, the dialogue bites and was there a plot here? I'm sure someone thought so, but I didn't.I watched it once to be polite to my friends, but I felt like my foot was caught in a bear trap and I would have to gnaw my own leg off to escape. Never again."
To break the movie down a little: The direction is flat, but at least it attempts to be exciting. Zale Dalen has evidently seen action and martial arts movies, and knows what kind of shots and scenes should be in them. That is about all. The script is distinctly rubbish, but then again so are a large number of scripts that do well. With better effects, different actors, could this movie have been a classic? Well, no, and I think it probably would have made it worse. Billie is the definitive Snipes-Lite, and the monotone of Jalal has a strangely crap charm to it, though he does, as one review said, act like an on screen fight choreographer. The effects are deeply horrible, but there's no shortage of them, and they are all executed with a brave kind of gusto.
3. "That virtual stuff, that's crap"
Yes, horribly enough there's a game, and appropriately enough it's shit. The one review I could find, which has been since erased from the web, gave a stunning 30%. It's an arcade beat 'em up and according to the review appears to have almost no good features at all, apart from the finishing moves . Here's a taste:
When you start the game, you'll see a non-interactive video transmission from a fellow agent and be prompted to select a "Virtual Opponent" to fight in the "Virtual Arena." The opponents themselves are an odd bunch, ranging from an evil clown to a scantily-clad dominatrix, while your character is a generic male in a karate outfit. An information screen pops up, and the round -- and your headaches -- begin
As you can see, it's true to the movie. It seems that the publishers, Microforum, have left the games business, and that along with the review, most traces of the demo have been excised from the web. I'm fairly sure I still have a copy in my extensive crap movie game tie in archives, but I was never able to get the thing to go so I can't to give a first hand account of its majesty.
4. "Here's one opponent you can't switch off"
I thought that Zale Dalen's career had been completely killed by this film, but it seems I was wrong. IMDB has listed "Call of the Wild", a TV series of which Mr Dalen directed an episode, after a gap of 5 years since EnM. We can only presume he has been in therapy. For those interested, he looks like this, and I must admit I cannot imagine that man actually directing this film, so I'm guessing he wasn't there. If you really want to know, then you can email him here or here.
As for Billy Blanks, while you of course know him from your weekly Tae Bo workout, but he was also the suicidal american football player in underrated Bruce Willis Die Hard-alike The Last Boy Scout. Unfortunately, at some point Billy decided to hide his EnM past, and removed the movies page from his site. Still, if you want to support him and his foundation, you can purchase some motivational dog tags, even if his former range of techno BillyWear appears to have been discontinued.
The good lookin' gal in EnM, Laurie Holden, differs from many of the cast by being fairly succesful and popular. There are a number of fan sites dedicated to her, and after a quick check around this one looked the nicest. For some reason it doesn't mention Expect No Mercy however.
Writer J. Stephen Maunder is credited on a new(ish) film, starring and directed by Jalal Merhi, called "Expect To Die". I have thus far been unable to confirm it is a sequel, but it definitely features a virtual training system, which is good enough for me. Unfortunately, the UK has been so far deprived of a DVD release, but the US import is sitting on my shelf, awaiting the Proper Time for a Viewing.