Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I'll buy that for a dollar: The Deadly Cure (United States, 1996)

The bar for contemporary anti-cinema has been lowered considerably over the last few years, yet The Deadly Cure manages to limbo under it like a lanky hybrid of Belafonte and Plastic Man. Or perhaps I should say “vanti-cinema”--as in “Vanity/anti”, since a prerequisite for descending below cinema’s lowest threshold seems to be a desire to elevate oneself to a level leagues beyond one’s means or abilities.

In the case of The Deadly Cure, the suspect self-promoter is one Dr. Zee Lo, a Los Angeles based “real life doctor”, martial arts expert and teacher who, through his Z Entertainment Productions, has produced and starred in a series of shot-on-video martial arts adventures that seem mostly designed to show off what a badass he is. These bear such titles as Dr. Z, Martial Arts Medicine Man, The Bloods of Angel and Demons, and Combat Mortal—this last being my favorite, as it seems to suggest the one instance of a film being based on a pirated video game. To his credit, Dr. Z comes across as entirely earnest and sincere, intending his films in part as homage to his “grand master” Bruce Lee. He is also quite obviously a skilled fighter; I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of any of the blows he deals out in this movie (or of much of his dialogue, for that matter. Zing!)

As a vanti-auteur, Zee deserves a place alongside the greats, but for some fatal competencies that stand in his way. While The Deadly Cure’s many under-lit scenes, often inaudible dialog and shots that could conceivably have been composed by someone who had never seen a movie before easily place it at the technical level of James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror, it also exhibits an understanding of genre, plot, English syntax and basic human behavior that prevents it from limning The Room’s degree of incoherence and risibility. Of course, there are greater insults that one can hurl at a filmmaker than that he is no Tommy Wiseau.

The Deadly Cure sang to me from the dollar bin for a number of reasons, all of them having to do with its packaging. For one, there are its obvious cut-and-paste, color Xerox origins and the enthusiastic pull quotes whose attributions are conveniently smudged beyond legibility. But what really inflamed my curiosity beyond the point of resistance was the fact that, while those pull quotes variously tout the film’s “authentic action” and “superb choreography”, the packaging elsewhere—and somewhat incongruously, to my mind—categorizes the film as “animation”.

Having now watched The Deadly Cure, it is impossible for me to stress just how much it is in not an animated film. It's images, however, do evidence a super-saturated quality that, by a violent stretch of the imagination, could be said to sort of resemble the Rotoscope technique used by Richard Linklater in films like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, while in no way disguising its origins as a live action video. If this effect was intentional, it was perhaps intended to cover up for some other technical flaw. If not, the attempt to pass it off as a cartoon is another brand of face-saving altogether. In any case, this gambit represents another signal event in the long history of producers banking on their audience’s inability to distinguish live action from animation, going all the way back to when Superargo and the Faceless Giants was marketed as “Not a Cartoon”.

In summarizing The Deadly Cure, I am going to use the descriptions of its actors CVs featured on the DVD case, because, despite the fact that I was unable to verify some of them on IMDB, I want to honor the possibility that they might be accurate. Zee, of course, plays our hero, Dr. Billy Lee, who has developed an herbal remedy for a deadly infection that has been sweeping the mean streets of West Los Angeles via a potent strain of synthetic heroin. In keeping with the tenets of Vanti cinema, Lee, a nice enough looking guy, is portrayed as being irresistible to women, and so is pursued arduously by his blonde intern, Susan. Susan is played by Deborah Keller (“Baywatch”), who spends much of the film lounging around hilariously in Lee’s apartment wearing nothing but a Dodgers jersey and holding an enormous cordless phone.

Meanwhile, Zee’s bitter rival, Alex (“BILL CABLE, Basic Instinct”), steals his remedy and turns it over to drug kingpin Wu Fang (the actually familiar looking “LEO LEE, Kindergarden Cop”), who immediately launches a series of attempts to alternately rub Lee out and kidnap Susan. In these efforts he employs a towering African American wearing a knit sweater with black power fists front and back. Eventually, Lee goes to visit an old Buddhist monk who turns out to be a veritable Old Faithful of exposition, informing Lee that it was Wu Fang who murdered his parents and thus inspiring him to set aside his peaceful ways and head out on the vengeance trail. Much training follows, very authentically filmed in what is probably Lee’s actual gym with his actual trainer, after which he stages a one man siege upon Wu Fang’s lair—this occurring just as the drug lord is entertaining a host of potential buyers for Lee’s remedy, each from a different country and each skilled in his own indigenous martial art.

Given its action movie aspirations, the first hour of The Deadly Cure is surprisingly dialogue dependent, as it apparently tries to ratchet up the tension until the final straw transforms the soft spoken Lee into an exciting man of violence. Fortunately, there are a number of things that make this first hour go by more smoothly than it otherwise might. For one, the performances are, for the most part, by bad actors who are acting badly, which—as I think I’ve mentioned before—is much more entertaining than non-actors not acting. There is also the sheer inappropriateness of having your one black actor dressed in what looks like the Black Panthers’ version of a Christmas sweater. Oh, and on a personal note, there were all the establishing shots of random buildings in Westwood, which, having lived there, provided a lot of unwelcome fodder for reminiscence on my part (I’m pretty sure that the hospital at which Lee worked was a Sports Chalet).

The Deadly Cure also has a director's cameo. This is problematic, as few people not involved with the film are likely to recognize its director, Michael Connor. There is, however, a work-around for this:

Dr. Z’s attack on Wu Fang’s lair, when it comes, consists of him going from room to room and facing a single combatant in each, each of whom uses a different fighting style and each of whom ends up leaving an impression of his unconscious face in the floor. This gives the sequence more the feel of a tournament or demonstration than a vengeance driven free-for-all and, as such, one that has a lot less drama than it ideally should. Furthermore, not much effort is made to film these fights in any kind of dynamic fashion. Despite Z’s aforementioned skills, this all has the ironic effect of making the point at which The Deadly Cure finally kicks into action also the point at which it starts to get a little boring.

I think a lot of the above can be attributed to Zee Lo’s dedication to authenticity. In an extra featured on the DVD (yes, this is a dollar DVD with extras), he speaks to a group of his students, decrying the exploitation of Bruce Lee’s name. By contrast, he says, in reference to his own practice, “we don’t commercialize the art.” Unfortunately, while martial arts may be an art, martial arts cinema is, above all else, cinema, and must rely on some artifice and embellishment in order to communicate, not just an action, but also the inherent drama and narrative context of that action. Thus even a martial arts purist like Liu Chia-Liang had to master cinematic techniques in order to properly represent the form.

Happily, one thing that, by its very nature, does not need artifice or embellishment is incompetence, of which The Deadly Cure is rife. It must be said, however, that much of this incompetence comes in the form of overreach, and hence deserves a little respect. Hey, it takes balls to attempt the speed up/slow down effects of a Luc Besson film with 1996 video technology, as it does to employ a freeze frame as liberally as Connor and Lo do here. Dr. Z is clearly a man with the courage of his convictions, and I would be loath to say that the world—or at least that part of it that can be had for a dollar—is not a better place for it.

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