Monday, November 12, 2012

The Burlesque Assassins

Alternate Title:  War and Pasties

One sentence synopsis:  A team of international Burlesque Dancers/Assassins team up to defeat evil dictators and save the world.

Things Havoc liked:  A while back, I reviewed a film called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, a movie in which the Great Emancipator liberated the entrails of an army of vampires with a silvered axe while racing to save the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a movie with a premise so ridiculous that to criticize it was to miss the point. One could either choose to accept it, or not. It is with that notion in mind that I present The Burlesque Assassins, a movie with a premise so outlandish that I can't decide if it represents insanity, genius, or both: A world where Nazis, Fascists, and Cold War communists must fear the watchful eye of Johnny Valentine, and his posse of burlesque-dancers-turned assassins.

Who is Johnny Valentine? Picture a cross between Charlie (of the Angels) and Hannibal Smith of the A-Team, and you'll begin to get an idea. Valentine is a grizzled veteran who ran a secret squad of burlesque assassins during WWII (the newsreels of their exploits are one of the movie's highlights), while simultaneously carrying on with his Russian counterpart, Katerina Molotov any chance he could get. Valentine (I could not for the life of me discover the actor's name) brings just the right note of played-straight spy foolishness to a role that is, on the face of things, utterly ridiculous, and manages to render the entire thing believable, even as he dons an ever-more absurd series of "disguises" (the source of many awesome jokes). Valentine's performance is spot on, and grounds the entire escapade, somehow, in just enough of a veneer of reality that we can suspend our disbelief. His is the role of the gruff, cigar-chomping unit boss, unflappable and supremely confident in his plan and his agents, though when he gets his hands dirty (as he does several times in the film) the result is unfailingly hilarious.

But the stars of the show are intended to be the Burlesque Assassins themselves, a collection of actual burlesque dancers of note, acting here with stage names and cover identities that I must assume are barely, if at all, exaggerated above their "real" ones. The team's modus operandi is generally to seduce their targets with a sexy burlesque routine, following which the target is invited backstage for a 'private' show to die for. It comes as no surprise, of course, that professional burlesque dancers can indeed perform burlesque routines, but given the generally low budget style of the film, it is a surprise that several of them actually seem to be able to act as well. Particularly, the actresses portraying Bombshell Belle and Koko La Douce (I beg pardon if I'm confusing real stage names for film ones, but IMDB is singularly unhelpful here) bring just the right hint of world-weary comedy to the planning and execution of their assassinations to carry the farcical yet straight-played tone that the movie is going for. And many of the more slapsticky routines they engage in, particularly those where they have to dispose of the bodies of the malefactors, are actually really funny.

Speaking of the malefactors, this movie presents us with, and I'm not making this up, the Son of Mussolini, the Clone of Adolph Hitler, and a very much non-dead Joseph Stalin working in cahoots to destroy the world with a Death Ray. If that concept sounds awesome, it's because it is, and the actors who portray the three villains in question manage to have a great deal of fun with their roles, despite physically doing little more than sitting in a theater watching Burlesque routines. Of the three, Hitler is probably the funniest (if only because of a single hilarious sequence involving his er... preferences... in companionship), but all three play fantastically off one another, a cross between their versions from The Great Dictator, and more modern parodies from a Family Guy-style. Their interplay, and reactions to the girls are quite well done, and anchor several of the best sequences in the film.

Finally, I obviously can't speak to what budget this movie had, but given everything, the effects are better than I expected. Most of the violence is deliberately over-the-top, Tom and Jerry style "hijinx", but while the blood, body parts, or futuristic weapons won't be winning any Academy Awards, they were a step or so above what I initially expected to see from a movie like this one. Given that the movie's tongue is firmly in its cheek, a little bit of ludicrously over-the-top blood gives it a very Sam Raimi feel in all the right places.

Things Havoc disliked:  A risk with small projects like this is that the actors you're employing are not always up to par. Such is the case for the main assassin, Bourbon Sue, who simply doesn't know how to deliver a line properly. Oh she can dance seductively with the best of them, that much is for certain, but there's more to acting than burlesque dancing, and her wooden acting does the film no favors. In fact, given the movie's low budget and burlesque theme, Sue's performance hurts more than it normally would, as it brings to mind uncomfortable parallels to the bad acting one finds in porno movies. Don't get me wrong, that's not what this is, but it was the impression I got.

Speaking of Burlesque, I understand that this was a niche film made by a proud subculture, I really do. But for boring old me, a man who knows less about Burlesque than he does about rocket science (I'm not kidding), the movie seemed entirely overloaded with Burlesque routines. Not only does each of the assassins get their own number, but the rest of the action is intercut by three or four "guest" appearances by other well-known Burlesque stars. I recognize that it's a bit churlish to complain that there are too many beautiful women removing their clothes in front of me, but each of these routines is three or four minutes long, and after the seventh one, I began to wish the movie would simply get on with it. There was enough interesting and funny material to be had from the actual main characters, and given that I did not know who any of the guest Burlesquers (that may not be a word) were, there wasn't really anything for me there. I doubt there's much for anyone who doesn't know the participants.

Final thoughts:  And yet the reason I bring that complaint up at all is because this is not simply a fan-work for insiders only. It's actually a surprisingly well-done action-comedy-farce graced by good writing, acting, and a suitably ludicrous concept. Were it not for the languid pace that the various numbers give it, and the issues that mar its choice of main actress, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. That said, even with its flaws, this is one of the better low/no-budget flicks I've seen, and should one of you happen to come across it in your wild journeys through the cinematic landscape, you might well be in for a surprise.

Final Score:  6/10

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