Aaron R. Davis
One of the more lamely amusing aspects of modern Hollywood is that so many of its movies try too hard to be homages to certain genres. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez — and, let’s face it, even before them Steven Spielberg — have made it cool to hold yourself at a distance from your influences, so that when we see a movie like Death Proof or Sin City (or Raiders of the Lost Ark), we’re not watching an exploitation movie or a noir gangster thriller or a Saturday morning serial adventure, but an homage to those styles that puts a modern spin on something the directors liked when they were younger. And as great as those films are, I’ve always felt there was also something fundamentally dishonest about them, as though the directors didn’t have the guts to just give themselves over to the styles they were working in.
What’s nice about Rick Jacobson’s Bitch Slap is that it’s not an homage or a quoting of a certain style, but an out-and-out, honest-to-goodness exploitation movie. And it’s surprisingly refreshing.
This is a sexy, kick ass movie that certainly owes a lot to Russ Meyer and Roger Corman — and to Quentin Tarantino and Frank Miller — but doesn’t merely quote from its influences. Jacobson and his co-writer Eric Gruendemann have instead crafted a movie of their own that tries to play in the same league as their 60s and 70s female empowerment exploitation forefathers. The bar is pretty high there, and the movie embraces the comparisons with an opening credits sequence that clips many of the greats (Coffy and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and even Teaserama). It serves as homage and as an acknowledgment that there’s a rich past to live up to.
And the movie does live up to it. One of the nicest surprises of Bitch Slap is that it isn’t simply some excuse for hot chicks to run around beating each other up. This is a flick made by people who obviously have a deep and honest love for a certain kind of film and wanted to make one of their own.
The plot is almost superfluous to the action: it’s about three women searching for $200 million in diamonds in the desert, all of them with their own secrets. What’s especially nice is that the plot unfolds in a non-linear flashback structure. That’s not exactly an original structure in the post-Pulp Fiction-winning-an-Oscar-for-Best-Screenplay world, but it’s pulled off extremely well. I used that word, unfolds, on purpose. Information isn’t simply dumped out at intervals, but instead revealed when needed through action and character. There’s a story here. There are characters. And there is coherence, which is more than you can say for a lot of the last few years of bloated, long-winded blockbusters. (Yes, I’m specifically thinking of Avatar and my hated The Dark Knight.)
But what really makes this movie work is its total insanity. It revels in its own ridiculousness. The acting is arch and the action is over-the-top. There is hardly any nudity (which is fine; there’s no nudity in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! either) but lots of jiggle, even a water fight that comes out of nowhere and is simply an excuse to get three sexy women in wet clothes in the middle of the desert. The action is crazed and psychotic, and no one comes across as a believable person or anything less than a movie character. Many scenes are obviously set against greenscreen backdrops that look cheap but do add a sort of comic book look to the whole affair.
Basically, almost nothing believable happens. But that’s what holds it all together. The film’s ability to embrace its own outrageousness and the actress’ willingness to never once ruin the illusion make this film something special. The three leads — Erin Cummings, Julia Voth and America Olivo — especially deserve praise for taking their characters seriously and playing them to the hilt. I especially dug Olivo: every glance, every stance, every smack and every snarl communicate her character so thoroughly; she’s a feral animal caged in a woman’s body and ready to take it out on everyone she can. Her character, Camaro (of course!), is my favorite of the movie’s creations. And Olivo kicks ass in the fight scenes.
The fight scenes almost deserve their own column. They are inspired, with stunts choreographed by the great Zoe Bell, and lots of flame and smoke in the background. The women really go for broke here, the characters never giving an inch as they try to tear each other apart with their bare hands. The fight scenes alone are worth seeing the movie for. The plot isn’t an excuse for over-the-top action, but another way the characters are revealed and, in some cases, the way characters communicate with one another. Camaro doesn’t have the word “pain” tattooed on her knuckles for nothing.
One thing this movie doesn’t have is subtext. What you see is what you get. To some critics, that makes this movie a failure. But I’ll take this over a contemplation of the genre any time. This is the reason Iron Man was, for me, the far superior comic book movie of 2008. Where The Dark Knight spent so much time worrying about its symbolism and its psychology and the meaning of comic books in society that its characters finally became self-serving ciphers, Iron Man was content to revel in its comic book origins without the pop psychology or the moping. Sure, Bitch Slap ain’t a message movie, and it ain’t deep, but it is just so fiercely and unapologetically what it wants to be that it doesn’t have to be anything more.
Seriously, give this one a look on Netflix if it sounds like your thing. And if it does turn out to be your thing, you and I will get along just fine.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.