A Dance with an Angel of Death
In 2009, Badmouth interviewed writer Ed Brubaker and actress/stuntwoman Zoe Bell at Wondercon as they were promoting Angel of Death, an episodic web series envisioned to have an afterlife as a single feature movie. At the time of the interview and its posting, only the earliest episodes had been released, and lazy bastards that we are, Badmouth never went back and reviewed the unified project.
Until I decided to download it onto an iPad just to test out the experience of watching a movie on the same midsized screen I’m suddenly reading books. Short review of that: picture’s fine, but I wish the volume went up a bit higher. But how about the film? The early episodes, screened on the entertaining upstart Crackle.com, (where it’s still available, still free) which is liable to find its fortunes surging thanks to mobile devices, showed promise as lowbrow, down-and-dirty entertainment, and I was curious to see whether it would hold up as a single feature. Short review of that: It does.
Angel of Death offers quick, inventive bursts of violence against a backdrop of vague/generic mobster/assassin stuff that is never meant to be any more substantial than the fake storefronts of one of those backlot Old West towns. And the cast around Bell features highlights in Doug Jones (Hellboy) and Lucy Lawless, both ripping into their over-the-top roles, but also features some notable weaknesses, as you’d expect in a lower-budget production. But then, the script isn’t always trying to be poetry, either. Brubaker doesn’t have time to give his West Coast crime family the full-blown Puzo treatment, and his reliance on the familiar as an easy way to get to the cool violence is exactly the direction this project should have taken.
Though the story was originally released in short bursts of something like eight minutes, the parts come together all but seamlessly when watched straight through, which is a neat trick. Zoe Bell is an assassin whose latest hit for an LA crime family goes horribly wrong when she ends up with a large knife embedded in her skull. After it’s removed, she either has brain damage or is seeing ghosts, one or the other triggering something like remorse and a mission to right some of her wrongs. Which means taking on a lot of bad people in creatively painful ways. The story is about as simple as that, and succeeds on Zoe Bell’s ability to kick ass, Brubaker’s fast script and director Paul Etheredge’s sharp direction.
Etheredge may be the real hero here. He creates a fine grindhouse flick with crisp direction, some stylish edits and comic-style framing and, most importantly, producing great violence. Nearly every fight scene has something that feels fresh, and when you’re doing intimate combat with hand-to-hand, knives and gunplay, that ain’t easy.
At 77 minutes, Angel of Death is a quick, crisp piece of pulp that is perfect for scratching a particular genre itch. It’s not Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s recent lower-budget thriller that also casts as its lead a woman better known for her athletic skills than her acting experience. In both films, neither actress is given much to work with emotionally, but Bell gets far more in Angel than Gina Carano gets in Haywire. But where Soderbergh’s film feels like an arthouse take on pulp fiction, Angel of Death is very much the kind of happy discovery you make on late-night, basic cable, maybe sandwiched between a couple of badly dubbed Hong Kong martial arts flicks. Only, y’know, accessed instantly via the overpriced technotoy of your choice. Because technology is awesome.