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Bounty Hunters

2011, Starring Trish Stratus, Frank J. Zupancic, Boomer Phillips, Joe Rafla, Christian Bako, Andrea James Lui. Directed by Patrick McBrearty (Black Fawn Films).

Guest review by Allan Mott

As a fan of film criticism, one of my major pet peeves is when a critic refuses to discuss a film on its own merits and instead insists on comparing it to another movie, either to show how much better or worse it is as a cinematic accomplishment. That shit just drives me bananas and there’s just no call for it.

That said, I wanna talk about Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Haywire for a second.

The truth is it bears very little resemblance to Bounty Hunters (which you’ll still find frequently referred to online by its much more endearingly-Canadian original title—Bail Enforcers), beyond the superficial connection of both being action films designed to exploit the admirable fighting skills (both genuine and faux) of their attractive female leads (MMA fighter Gina Carano in Haywire and former WWE star Trish Stratus in Bounty Hunters). But by comparing the films I feel I can best make my case that Bounty Hunters’ greatest flaw is its stubborn unwillingness to embrace its exploitation elements and instead foolhardily attempt to be a real movie.

It all comes down to talent and money. By Hollywood standards, Haywire was a low budget film—a lark made by an Oscar-winning director who decided he wanted to make a movie starring the hot dark-haired fighter lady who gave him a hard on when he saw her interviewed on TV (see also The Girlfriend Experience, but replace “fighter lady” and “interviewed on TV” with “porn star” and “online being gangbanged by 8 dudes”), but compared to Bounty Hunters it might as well have been Lawrence of Arabia.

But in this case money mattered less than Soderbergh’s reputation. An obsessive student of film, he instinctually understood that the secret to centering your film around a star with zero acting experience is to surround them with the best talent possible. To that end, he had his assistant contact Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbinder and Bill Paxton. Then for fun he hired Channing Tatum anyway. With them he brought class and prestige to what was otherwise a standard potboiler about a hot babe who breaks bones. Gina didn’t have to talk, she just had to kick ass (and look amazing doing it).

Director Patrick McBrearty and screenwriter Reese Eveneshen didn’t have access to that level of onscreen talent when they made Bounty Hunters and it shows. It shows so hard it leaves bruises. It’s a problem a lot of similar low-low-low budget movies face, and the way the successful ones transcend it is by upping the exploitation elements to such a high level that genre fans have no choice but to ignore their obvious deficiencies and instead honour their over-the-top celebration of everything we love.

Needless to say, Bounty Hunters isn’t one of these success stories. It’s a film that’s shackled by its own good taste and unrealistic ambitions. For example, it has dialogue. Lots and lots of dialogue. And monologues. Lots and lots of monologues. What it doesn’t have is a cast capable of performing this dialogue and these monologues without making you think of the time your cousin was in that community production of Death of a Salesman and how thirty minutes in you felt like James Franco in 127 Hours just as he was about to start breaking the bone.

When the best performance in your film is given by the hot former lady wrestler whose only real job is to look good on the video cover and show off some of her moves in the de rigueur fight scenes, there’s something wrong.

And that’s not to say Stratus is a revelation here. She shows a slight facility for light comedy here and there, but has no depth during the dramatic scenes and visibly struggles to remain “present” when the other actors are talking, but there’s no denying that she has a charismatic presence that a filmmaker as skilled as Soderbergh could do a lot with. Clearly she dyed her hair brown too late to get his attention.

Here she plays Jules, the hot blonde member of a team of bail enforcement agents that includes leader Ridley (Zupancic), a local community leader who has a good reason to hate crime, and Chase (Phillips), a wannabe-cop who is kept from joining the force due to an old hockey injury. The job is tough and the pay sucks, as evidenced by the fact that Jules has to moonlight as a cocktail waitress in a strip club to support her daughter (who we never actually see and—I like to think—may be a figment of her imagination), which gives the movie all the excuse it needs to dress her up in one of more conservative schoolgirl outfits you’re likely to see (seriously, it might as well be a burqa for all of the flesh it leaves uncovered).

Ridley and Chase drop Jules off at her other job on the way to taking their latest bail jumper to jail. On the way there he convinces them that he knows the location of another thug who has a $100,000 bounty on his head and offers to tell them where the guy is in exchange for his freedom. Despite their misgivings, Ridley and Chase take the bait, pick up Jules and grab the more valuable offender from a local Asian whack palace.

But word of his capture immediately reaches a local crime boss, who contacts our three heroes and offers them a million bucks to take their new catch to him instead. The ethical dilemma of doing the right thing for $100,000 or the wrong thing for a million is then given some inadvertently hilarious lip service (we actually get a shot of Jules looking at a photograph of—presumably—her daughter, so we can appreciate just what she could do with this blood money).

Naturally the shit hits the fan, but everything turns out all right and our team escapes relatively unscathed and with the million dollars to boot. The end credits begin 73 minutes after we’ve started and stretch the production to 79 minutes courtesy of bloopers so unfunny they’d make Hal Needham laugh.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this plot, but the execution is so sincere (even when it’s trying to be funny via Phillips’ obviously improvised moments) that every single flaw jumps out at you like a black cat in a poorly lit basement. For me the most obvious example of this comes during Stratus’ final fight scene, which sees her clad in her theoretically enticing schoolgirl outfit while battling to the death with an Asian assassin (Lui) who’s dressed in a nurse’s uniform.

From a pure exploitation standpoint, this scene boils over with potential, but the filmmakers cool it down to the point of being lukewarm by completely ignoring everything that could have been great about it and focusing instead on the fighting itself, which is about as exciting as your standard WWE match (i.e., not very). It’s as perfect example I’ve ever seen of a Canadian production taking something that could have been awesome, only to steadfastly remove every single element that might have made it work until only the blandest possible result appears on screen.

Speaking of Bounty Hunters essential Canadianness, it’s definitely a film that completely annihilates the frequent assertion that the Canadian accent is just a myth made up by stupid Americans. Every single actor in the film sounds like they’re auditioning for a role in the traveling stage musical version of Strange Brew (with all them destined to be rejected for trying too hard).

Shot in Toronto, the film’s digital cinematography is another thing it has in common with Haywire, but in this case the result only heightens the amateur hour inauthenticity of the whole production. The film doesn’t necessarily look bad, but without the grain of celluloid, you can see the painful effort being exuded in every single shot.

As hard as I’ve been on it, Bounty Hunters isn’t an easy movie to hate. Like that community theatre version of Death of a Salesman I mentioned above, it’s terrible and painful to sit through, but it’s also so well intentioned and sincere that you at least have to admire the hard work and effort required to get it made and released.

Just so long as you never, ever have to sit through it again.

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