If there’s one thing I love about going to cons, it’s the growing number of low budget filmmakers turning out to these things. All I have to do is mention that I run a marginally popular cult film website where I review movies and I get screeners dumped on me like you wouldn’t believe. I also wind up learning a few things in the process. For instance, I’m just now discovering that there is some kind of strange genre movie indie culture happening in Providence, Rhode Island. Prior to this, I’ve been only aware of Richard Griffin and his Scorpio Film Releasing group. At the recent Rock & Shock show in Worcester, Massachusetts I also met up with Ricky Laprade from 12 Gauge Pictures and took home a copy of his latest movie, Death Force. I took it for a quick spin one morning and saw the name Shanette Wilson in the credits and immediately started connecting the dots. These guys had to be from Providence. Shanette was also in Richard Griffin’s last picture, Nun Of That (review). The next day at the con, I made my way back to the 12 Gauge table and sure enough, they were from Providence.
It’s fucking weird. I don’t really equate Rhode Island with a burgeoning scene of young, talented filmmakers flexing their celluloid muscle to make trashy action and horror movies. It’s a city that seems so banal. Sure. Lovecraft is from there, but that’s about all they have going for them.
We all know by now how I feel about Richard Griffin (I like his movies a lot). But this article isn’t about Richard. This is about Ricky Laprade. I can now add another indie director from Providence to my watchlist. Death Force knocked my fucking socks off. It’s a deeply flawed movie, which I will inevitably get into, but for a feature made for peanuts in a small New England city, you’re going to be hard pressed to find anything that approaches its production and entertainment values
Bear with me. I hope I get this right. See, there’s this guy named The Red King. He seems to be presiding over some kind of covert science project called Dark Forest. A bunch of people with guns attack some other people with guns in some kind of warehouse. It turns out that one of these groups is betraying the Red King and expects the other side to join them. One of these people breaks off and manages to steal Project Dark Forest, contained in a heavy suitcase. Shortly thereafter, she, Tracy Liddel, becomes hunted by The Red King’s assassins and she must evade them all if she’s going to survive all this and offload the package for a hefty sum of money.
I hope I got that synopsis right because if Death Force suffers from any flaws, it’s that its script is a jumble of sweet ideas that don’t necessarily play nicely together. The end result is a confusing kaleidoscope of gun fights, fist fights and tough talking dialog set beneath an endless series of sickly looking colored fluorescents. A half an hour goes by before the credits begin. Characters are named, Snatch style, moments before they wind up dead of a gunshot wound to the head. It’s never particularly clear what’s going on in Death Force and that’s a real shame because what Ricky Laprade and Corey Gomes have here is a real comic book crime movie that pits a series of impossibly skilled assassins under the manipulation of a mysterious Keyser Soze type villain.
Cyberpunk godfather, William Gibson once said when asked about influences for his cornerstone novel, Neuromancer, and he specified Escape From New York as being pivotal. There are moments when Plissken and Hauch are talking and they suggest a lot of the backstory without ever explaining it. Gibson said that it’s this kind of implication that can add a lot to a story and it would seem that Laprade and Gomes both subscribe to this idea. There seems to be a huge backstory working in Death Force yet there’s no context for any of it. You can make a lot of assumptions about the world that this movie lives in but without any kind of hard evidence to support your own filling in of the blanks, you’re left with nothing. It’s a real shame because the movie has nothing but potential to be a kick ass action/sci-fi hybrid if it would only stop to exaplain itself for a few minutes. A long exposition at the beginning about the activation of Project Dark Forest (which may or may not be some kind of doomsday device) tells you nothing and the fact that the contents of the suitcase are never revealed only frustrate matters more.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Death Force is a bad movie. Remember when I said that it knocked my socks off? Laprade shoots his film like a pro and you’re going to be hard pressed to find a movie that is so in love with its own grimy aesthetic. Every scene is lit as though it was torn straight out of The Matrix. There is little in the way of natural lighting in the movie. Most of it is shot under sickening, chemical fluourescent lights of various colors. Everyone seems to have a kind of rock and roll meets hip hop fashion sensibility about them and there are some downright pornographic shots of a Chevrolet Chevelle that are the kind of thing that would make Hype Williams feel insignificant. The gigantic gun fight at the beginning of the movie lacks a lot of punch thanks to some really crappy gun sound effects, but there are, count ’em, two extremely impressive fist and foot fights in this movie. The Red King’s mouthpiece, codenamed Gemini, is a creepy high point, as well. Looking like the comic character, The Question, he moves like a robot and keeps tabs on the action as Tracy does what she can to evade the Red King’s people. His means of presenting his messages to his assassins is also killer, represented by a pair of lips on the screen of an iPhone.
It’s also saved by a stellar cast of Providence locals. While I felt like Shanette Wilson was a little wooden in Nun Of That, here she is at home with some dialog that has an organic rhythm that never feels forced or awkward. Also from Nun Of That is David Lavallee Jr. in another badass role. Though I’m sure the Providence culture of actors showing up in movies like Death Force is pretty small, Lavallee and Wilson both show a fluid degree of acting talent that allows them to put on the laughs when they’re in a Richard Griffin movie and chew the scenery when they’re doing a righteous action movie. Most of the scenes of people talking is your usual action movie tough guy script writing, but it seems nothing but appropriate for what you’re watching.
Though the script is deeply flawed, Laprade’s direction and the sheer ambition of the action scenes more than make up for what the movie lacks. A stellar cast does its best to illustrate the details of a frustratingly spare script. I can only hope that the inevitable sequel fills in the blanks. It’s only a matter of time. In a manner similar to the work of Mamorou Oshii, just as the movie seems to be hitting its stride, the credits roll with an almost unbelievable “To Be Continued…”
Do I want more? Oh yes. Yes, I do.