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Expect No Mercy

1996, Starring Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Wolf Larson, Laurie Holden, Anthony De Longis, Michael Blanks. Directed by Zale Dalen (Film One).

Forget about mercy, it's best to go into Canadian superproducer Jalal Merhi's budget-minded martial arts flicks with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Ever since Lebanon-born Merhi sold off his Toronto jewelry business in 1989 to help fund his new enterprise, Film One Productions, he has been determined to turn himself into a globally recognized action star, producing and starring in more than a dozen vanity-driven action flicks alongside more notable names like Cynthia Rothrock, Bolo Yeung and David Carradine. Expect No Mercy, Merhi's sixth film in as many years, stars Tae-Bo pitchman Billy Blanks as a special government agent who teams up with Merhi to bust up a shady chop socky school. So what sets Merhi apart from dozens of other high-kicking film hopefuls? Nothing but the wallet to back it up, apparently--though his official byline boasts of "great success" at martial arts tournaments, I've yet to see any evidence of his fighting prowess, and that extends to his lacklustre work in Expect No Mercy.

In the film, "Federal Security Bureau"agent Justin Vanier (Blanks) is assigned to investigate the Virtual Arts Academy, a high-tech martial arts facility that trains its students through virtual reality fights. The FSB suspects Academy founder Warbeck (Wolf Larson) of using his VR school as a front for an elite force of assassins who carry out lucrative hits, and Vanier goes undercover (by turning his baseball cap sideways) to kickbox the truth out of someone. Once enrolled, he dons a hilarious leather vest and completes the VR deathmatch gauntlet in one attempt. He makes contact with another agent, Eric (Merhi), who is already working there as an instructor, and together they break into Warbeck's office and steal a floppy disk full of important data, accidently triggering an alarm. The guards arrive to arrest them, but they manage to pass the disk off to sympathetic trainer Vicki (Laurie Holden) before they're thrown into a VR free-for-all and wailed on by a crew of computer-generated baddies. Vicki manages to rescue them from pixelated death, however, and they jet off to foil Warbeck's latest kill contract. Though Justin and Eric manage to save the intended target, Vicki is nabbed by Warbeck's henchmen and taken back to the Academy as bait for a final showdown.

While Expect No Mercy is first and foremost intended as a cheap martial arts buddy flick, it's really characterized by its atrocious attempt at bringing virtual reality to the small screen. Released four years after the popular VR thriller The Lawnmower Man, Expect No Mercy features some of the most embarrassing low-resolution effects ever seen. Terribly choppy 3-D imaging and computer generated backdrops for the VR fights that make a good portion of the film resemble a cheap, 32-bit console game like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II, only with ninjas, post-apocalyptic warriors and summersaulting clowns(!) sloppily blue-screened in as opponents. While fun for bad movie fans, these ill-executed special effects do nothing for   Expect No Mercy but emphasize its obvious cheapness and distract from the fights themselves.

Sporting a well-defined physique and a flashy fighting style, seven-time world karate champion Blanks isn't at all bad in his match-up--she even has one notable bout with his real-life brother--but he's barely believable in this one-dimensional role, displaying absolutely no personality or charisma as crack FSB agent Justin Vanier. Still, he's much more watchable than Merhi, whose acting ability is directly proportional to his limited Tae Kwon Do skills. Despite unintentionally hilarious line-readings and close-up camera work that obscures his average-at-best athleticism, the film seems to exist only to stroke Merhi's generous ego, and not too surprisingly, he's the one who saves the girl at the end, not the infinitely more able Blanks. American-born Laurie Holden is merely adequate in her role as the conflicted instructor who ends up in Merhi's noodly arms, but she's the only actor involved in this film who has gone on to better things (relatively speaking), garnering recent roles in big studio efforts like Silent Hill and Fantastic Four.

Shot at the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus, the Virtual Arts Academy is a monstrosity of concrete and glass in the "Brutalist" architectural style, the sole element that immediately identifies the film as a Canadian effort. Brutalism, which gets its name from rough, poured concrete exteriors and exposed innerworkings, was an architectural movement that was largely used for public buildings in Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly because of its low cost. From the opening shot of the ugly Academy, it's clear that the film has been shot at an Ontario-based public building--too bad that Merhi otherwise tries to disguise Expect No Mercy as being an American production.

Crappy computer graphics and Merhi's entertaining narcissism aside, Expect No Mercy's main point of interest is that it was helmed by Zale Dalen, the talented Vancouver director who put the West coast film scene on the map with his underrated 1977 effort Skip Tracer. While Dalen did not live up to promise of his early Canuck classic, mostly toiling away as a TV director in recent years, he does manage to give some scenes a palpable visual energy. While not up to the standards of American straight-to-video martial arts films, the fight sequences are not too bad at all a definite improvement over the McNamara brothers' similar, but far cruder Canadian kickboxing flicks. While there's no denying that Expect No Mercy is a bad B-film, Dalen does somehow keep the plothole-ridden vanity project on track, making this potentially excruciating Canuxploitation effort at least enjoyable on a level of pure camp.

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