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Hipster Holy Grail: High Voltage (1997)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

High Voltage is an incredibly silly movie with a tired premise, dumb characters, occasional overacting, and some painfully cheap sets.  But I had a lot of fun watching it, anyway.  It's the kind of movie whose very obvious flaws are mitigated by a healthy dose of charisma.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Johnny Clay (Antonio Sabato, Jr.) is the leader of a interchangeable group of buddies / thieves who pull off a lot of minor robberies and petty crimes.  I'd like to tell you that they each have a unique identity or a quirk or something, but really the only thing I got from it is that they were all orphans.  (Missed opportunity: what if they all wore Victorian-era street urchin disguises when they went on their heists?  Better movie.)

They are so interchangeable, in fact, that I'm having a hard time remembering how many of them there actually are at first.  Counting backward from the deaths... I think five.

But that doesn't really matter too much.  Mainly you just need to remember that two of Clay's buddies, Larry and Molly, are played by Lochlyn Munro and Amy Smart, both of whom gave me the delightful "Hey!  It's so-and-so!" moment of seeing a familiar face in such a tiny movie.  Also, they're the only other characters from Clay's gang that actually do anything.

When the movie starts, the pals are all playing pool and discussing their next big plot: robbing a bank.  The scheme involves Molly getting a job at the bank as a teller, then Clay coming in and pretending to complain about her to the bank manager, Jane (Shannon Lee).  I'm not entirely sure why either of these beats are important to the plan, though, because it basically just ends up with everybody pulling out shotguns and shouting at the bank staff.  You know.  Like a normal robbery.

Anyway.  Things go wrong quickly.  First, one of their buddies is killed.  Next, they find out that the money in the vault isn't what they expected, so they abandon it for the sake of a clean getaway.  Third, they find out after the fact that the bank is actually owned by the Vietnamese Mafia, and now the gang boss, Victor (George Cheung), is out to kill Clay and his friends.

We also find out that Jane is more or less Victor's slave, and she wants out.  As Clay and company go on the run to get away from Victor, Jane pursues Clay and urges him to re-rob Victor, kill him, and set her free.  Clay agrees to the re-robbery, and then the rest of the movie is basically a series of chase scenes as Clay and friends flee Victor, until finally they get to a climactic showdown.

As I've mentioned in the past, I try not to do overly detailed plot recaps on this site, so I'm not going to get into a beat-by-beat breakdown.  However, there are two scenes I do want to mention because I'd feel remiss if I didn't.

The first is when Clay meets up with one of their other orphan buddies, Bulldog (William Zabka).  They initially visit him because they need a place to crash and he owns a garage where they can stay, but you soon find out that this sequence exists only to introduce Zabka as a secondary villain.  Considering that the movie is long enough with just Victor, I really don't get why they did it.  My guess is that they managed to get Zabka signed onto the film and they were going to put him in Clay's gang, but then they decided that having six people was too much.  So they made him this weird ancillary character.

The second scene I want to mention... well, this one's a doozy.  This might just be the whole reason to watch the movie.

The setup for the scene is that the gang has just narrowly evaded capture by Victor sometime late at night.  They are running to their getaway van and everybody hops in just in time to peel away - everybody, that is, except for Molly's fiancee.  Tragically, he is shot in the shoulder while diving to safety, so even though he makes it into the van, he's a goner.

(Quick tangent: I've never been shot before, so I can't realistically say that it's no big deal.  However, in cinematic terms, this is like a skinned knee.  People survive being shot all over the place in movies - the head, the gut, the heart, whatever.  I've never seen anybody go down from a shoulder bullet before.  It seems like such a cop-out death.)

Molly freaks out and has a long, good cry over the corpse of her beloved.  In between breathless sobs, she shrieks, "Now I'll never get married!"

Cut to a tight shot of Jane's remorseful face, then cut to a tight shot of Clay's pensive face.  This will not stand.

Smash cut to a priest at some Late Night Church on the highway being forced at gunpoint to marry the still-hysterical Molly to her boyfriend's corpse.

It's exactly as hilarious as it sounds.

The Part Where I Acknowledge the Film's Significant Flaws

I've written before about movies that are on that cusp between "good" and "good bad."  There needs to be a new term for these kinds of films.  Maybe something like, "Good try?"  Or "Aeffort," as in, "You get an 'A' for effort?"

I'm rambling now, but my point is that High Voltage has an even amount of scenes that are fun because they're done well and scenes that are fun because they're so stupid.  This makes it really tough to give it a rating.  I can't honestly tell you to see this because it's a "good" action movie.  It's not; there's too much nonsense.  But I also can't honestly tell you to see this because it's a laugh riot.  It's not; there's not that many scenes that are actually ironically funny.

Let's talk about the acting.  In my Cube review, I mentioned that it's kind of a pet peeve of mine when critics beat up on actors too much; it's a difficult and thankless job, and you really only need to hit a baseline level of quality to make the movie believable.  For maybe 80% of the movie, the cast of High Voltage does an okay job.

But that other 20% is something to behold.  Look no further than the scene where Amy Smart mourns the death of her fiancee.  No offense to Ms. Smart - I actually really like her as an actress and I think she's incredibly talented.  It's just that I've honestly never seen anybody put in a more hysterical performance.  You think the Darth Vader "Nooo!!!" was bad?  You think you've seen melodrama?  Try again.  She wails as if she's working out the collective psychological issues of the entire crew in a single session of primal therapy.  She overacts so much that you immediately appreciate how nuanced her performance in The Butterfly Effect is - and I'm not even joking about that; it's honestly that much of a night-and-day contrast.

The fact that this scene is then immediately followed by the Wedding at Bernie's only further adds to just how extraordinarily ridiculous that scene really is.

But there's a plethora of flaws here.  The plot really doesn't make sense most of the time.  Why does Munro have to pretend to be a double agent toward the end if the mafia is hot on their trail, anyway?  Why does Zabka try to double-cross the guys in the first place, and why does he bother to embroil himself in the shootout once he realizes what's going on?  Why does the mafia own a bank?  And why would they bother to keep millions of dollars of money in their bank without having more people to guard it?  Why does anything happen?

Things look cheap, the music is so-so, the lighting and film quality aren't very good, et cetera.  Don't get me wrong when I give this a 3.5.  It's not a "good" movie.  There's a lot that would put you off.

It's just that none of that really matters once you get into it - flawed or not, this is an entertaining movie, and that's really the most important thing.

A Brief Bit About the DVD Cover

And now, I'd like to introduce a new bit in the Hipster Holy Grail called, "You used that for the cover art?"

I know there's nothing more intense than Shannon Lee's psych-scream, but it looks like she's staring into the sun right after being punched in the stomach.  Why does Antonio Sabato look prettier than her here?

You know that she's actually an attractive woman in real life, right?  Like, even in the movie this poster is for she looks really, really good?  Like this?

Hell, this isn't even a particularly good picture.  It's just the frame I ended up on arbitrarily while looking for screen caps.  What I'm saying is, even at random I picked a better picture for your cover than you did.  Did Lee piss off the designer or something?

The Part Where I Praise the Film's Action Scenes

Y'all remember when the original El Mariachi came out and everybody flipped because Rodriguez's direction was so incredible that, despite his budget constraints, it still looked like a real movie?  That's the sort of unexpected quality that you get in High Voltage.

So, I guess that's another way of saying that if El Mariachi didn't impress you, you probably won't be thrilled with High Voltage.  I understand.  Sometimes you get spoiled on production value.

But, listen: if you watch low budget movies as often as I do, you see a lot of "action" movies that have less of an adrenaline rush than stubbing your toe and wondering whether or not you'll lose your balance.  It's not impossible to put together a good action scene for very little money; it's just that most low budget directors think they can make up for a lack of intensity by investing their resources in all the wrong places.  For example, take a look at two of my oldest HHG write-ups: Massacre and Deadly Reckoning, both of which are boring slogs.

Hell, Deadly Reckoning might have actually had a bigger budget - if I recall correctly, the video (film?) quality was higher and there were a lot of smooth tracking shots, pyrotechnics, and other bits of technical flair.  But all the tracking shots in the world won't make your protagonist any more interesting if all he ever does is get into wooden "fistfights" and then shoot people from a distance.

High Voltage, on the other hand, brings creativity to its scenes and its blocking.  The characters leap and dive all over the place, doing gun acrobatics in place of the standard, clunky "shoot, reload, shoot" bullshit.  They break down their sets and use pieces of their environments to hide, detain the bad guys, or otherwise have some fun.  The camera finds interesting angles and movements to keep up momentum.  In short: it does far more with its tiny pool of resources than you would expect, and the result is a surprisingly compelling feature.

Now, before anybody posts to explain that I missed something, I'll say, yes, I know this was inspired by / ripped off from the '90s films of whatever Chinese director you care to name-drop.  Both the gunplay and the melodrama are straight out of The Killer, the use of set design as a driving force of action comes from virtually every Jackie Chan film after 1986, and the overblown influence and oppression of the mob comes from Johnnie To, among others.

But that's not a bad thing.  Just because the director was influenced by other great directors is no reason to discount the obvious talent at work here.  High Voltage is no masterpiece, but it's as good a reason as any to want to check out more by the dude.  Isaac Florentine, huh?  Let's see... what else did that dude work on?

Huh.  Well, consider me dumbfounded.  Maybe there's a reason people liked that show, after all.

Where You Can Watch

High Voltage is streaming on, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for (basically) free right now.