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Hipster Holy Grail: The Third Society (2002)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

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

The Third Society is confusing, repetitive, and ultimately kind of boring.  But I have a hunch that if you watch it with a crowd of drunk friends, you'll probably have an okay time.

My Rating: 2 / 5 (Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Hoo boy.  Let me see if I can do this accurately.

I can tell you that it begins with some voiceover narration by a lady who we'll later identify as McGregor (Sonya Eddy), an LAPD police chief.  McGregor is telling us the story of Cassandra Reynolds, a girl whose mother was murdered in front of her.  McGregor spews a lot of over-written dialogue about the loss of innocence and how that plays out in an ongoing battle between good and evil.  Then we learn through a mix of clumsy insert shorts and not-totally-clear narration that the government (?) faked Cassandra's death in order to take her into a covert training program (?) and turn her into a super soldier / spy (?) in China, and her latest assignment (?) is to pretend to be an LA cop.  Or something.

Fast forward to present day, and the girl, now going by "Cassandra Jones" (J.A. Steel) is an LAPD officer.  She's trying to bust a drug ring run by a guy named Dragon (Khin-Kyaw Maung), who was responsible for her mother's murder.  She's also trying to get revenge.

So, I know I'm only five minutes into the movie, but I'm already lost.  (You'll quickly see this was a recurring problem for me with this movie.)  Leaving aside that I'm not actually sure if Jones is a secret agent or what, I don't understand if she was assigned to take down Dragon or if she volunteered to go after him.  Like, did they assign her to Dragon because they were like, "You've been a pretty good agent-or-whatever so far.  As a reward, you can go avenge your mother now."?  Or was it just a happy coincidence?

It's not that complex a concept, really.  Kid witnesses murder, turns into LEO figure later in life, wants revenge.  I've seen it a hundred times in other movies.  But somehow, in The Third Society, it just doesn't make sense.  That's pretty much a microcosm of the movie as a whole.  Nothing is as simple as it should be, no matter how familiar it seems.

Part of the problem is that it sometimes gives you too much information, either through voiceover or insert footage.  It's like if you asked for directions to the bathroom at an Applebee's, and the server waved in the general direction - but then she also told you about how there has been a new scientific study that one out of every three toilets is sentient and secretly trying to murder you.  What exactly are you supposed to do with that information?  Do you try to interpret this as a warning not to use their bathroom?  Do you go, anyway, and just try not to think about it?  Are you supposed to take extra precautions now, or maybe offer an apology?  The bottom line is that you're not going to have an easy piss even though you know exactly where that bathroom is.

So.  The Third Society.

There's a bizarre montage of footage here that looks like Jones is fighting random guys in an empty warehouse.  Somewhere in the middle of this, you hear Dragon lamenting in a voiceover that Jones has killed a bunch of his men and transferred - wait for it - one billion dollars of his money to a government-controlled bank account.  He demands (still in voiceover) that one of his underlings kill Jones and get the money back.

So now the movie tries to do some parallel structure, which is a really, really bad idea since it can't even do singular structure.  We see two groups of thugs: one is trying to kill Jones on her houseboat, and the other has gone to accost Erica (Shannon Clay), who we later find out is Jones's sister.  Erica is either an undercover agent pretending to be an accountant for Dragon, or some kind of master hacker who specializes in bank accounts, or some third thing that makes even less sense.  Whatever she is, Dragon's goons are holding her at gunpoint and demanding that she transfer one billion dollars out of the government bank account and back into Dragon's account.

Jones kills the goons on her houseboat swiftly, then calls her sister.  There's some menacing banter between her and the goons, and then Jones gets on her motorcycle.

Cue the longest and most confusing chase scene in film history.  I'm not even going to bother trying to explain what's actually happening from shot to shot - you really have to see it to appreciate how confusing it is.  What's supposed to happen is that the goons go to the airport to load Erica into their private jet, and then Jones tries to chase them down and fails to get to them in time before the jet flies away.

What you actually see is about fifteen minutes of a hodgepodge of insert shots, aerial footage, speeding cars, and at one point - literally out of nowhere - Jones commandeering a helicopter and then immediately ditching it.

There's also a random insert shot of the control tower that they keep cutting to, as if something exciting is about to happen.  Each time they repeat the shot, there's some new detail.  It goes in and out of focus, it drifts off to one side, it rotates by about 45 degrees, etc.  At no point does anything happen to the tower.  At no point does it play a part in the plot.  The movie would simply like you to know that there is a control tower at this airport.

Eventually the chase ends and Jones beats up some goons in a hangar.  Then McGregor shows up on screen for the first time, joined by Michael (Russell Vann Brown), a handsome-but-bumbling FBI Agent, and a Miscellaneous Police Lady.  There's briefly a hostage scene involving the goon and a bystander, and then Miscellaneous Police Lady shoots the goon.  McGregor yells at Jones for... something, and then Jones gets on her motorcycle and leaves.  End of scene.

I'm not even sure what happens next.  It's either the first of two shower scenes in which Jones has flashbacks to her mom's death, or it's one of maybe half a dozen training scenes where you see her running around on a beach and/or through what looks like the rainforest.

You know what, it doesn't even matter.  I could just say, "Shit happens on screen" for all the good it would do.

The next plot-related scene has Jones and Michael going to a stripper bar to get a lead on Erica.  (Apparently they're partners now.  Who knew.)  Jones busts in on a sleazy goon in the back of the bar and takes him outside to beat him up / interrogate him.  There's another fight scene with some random other goons.

And then the camera zooms in on the sleazy goon while he starts his own voiceover narration, which is basically him thinking, "Should I run away?  Yeah, I should probably run away.  Jones might beat me up."  And then McGregor's voiceover starts in, and she yells at the thug for hijacking the movie's narration, and then the scene ends abruptly with Jones storming off again like a huffy little child.

And then... god, I don't know.  More crap.  More training footage, more of that random rainforest, Jones is sitting in a waterfall for a bit, she's taking another shower, she's having a flashback, she's running on a beach again, she's doing a goofy dance that's probably actually a great workout but which looks ridiculous.  It's all noise and insert shots signifying nothing.  Whoever first used the phrase "an assault on the senses" didn't know what they were talking about, because The Third Society renders it obsolete.

Eventually we get to another plot-related scene again.  Erica has just transferred the money - ahem, ONE BILLION DOLLARS - back into Dragon's account, and there's some menacing speechifying about how they're going to lure Jones into the open and kill her once and for all.  We're about twenty minutes from the end, so clearly, we're setting up for the climax.  McGregor even tells us as much in voiceover when she says something like, "What Dragon didn't know is that Jones always has a plan."

So, great, fine.  Jones is a super amazing whoopty-doo and she's going to storm the compound or something, right?  It's going to be really bad-ass, right?


Here's how it's set up.  You see Dragon's goons holding Erica hostage on another boat - possibly Jones's houseboat, or possibly some other goddamn boat.  And then you see somebody in Jones's motorcycle jumpsuit driving her bike around, but it's clearly not her.  (The movie hints at this by showing a scene of the rider trying to shoot a lock off a gate, and having a tough time with it; earlier in the movie, Jones did the exact same thing with no problem.)  And then the rider goes onto Dragon's boat and confronts him.

So I'm sitting there thinking, "Okay, the rider is Michael in disguise, and he's going to distract Dragon or something while Jones does something cool and saves the day."

So what does she do?  She drives up to the boat after Michael gets on it and just starts shooting at people randomly.

That's... that's not a plan.  You oversold this, Third Society.  Picture this same logic applied to any other situation and you'll see how stupid it is:

"Alright, this TV costs too much money, so here's my plan: you wear my jacket and pretend to be me, and then while the Best Buy clerk is talking to you, I'm going to go buy the TV."

So what the fuck ever.  I don't even care anymore.  There's another poorly-staged shootout where I'm not sure who's doing what and eventually Jones and Dragon have a showdown.  They hesitate for a minute, and then they shoot each other at the same time and both die.  McGregor's voiceover comes on and goes, "Is Jones really dead?"  And then the movie ends.

...after a blooper reel.

This movie gave me a headache.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Apologies in advance, Ms. Steel.  There's a halfway decent chance you'll end up reading this some day, and I hope you understand that I don't mean any of this personally.

I always feel guilty ripping apart something as personal as this.  I can practically feel the creator watching it with me.  I mean... I've been there, you know?  I know what it's like.  Big dreams, small budget, lots of laughs along the way - that's like all of my 20s.  I get it.  You didn't know exactly what you were doing and you should still be proud of the output, even if it's not going to go on your resume.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's be honest: this is pretty bad.

The story structure is a mess.  The acting is subpar across the board.  The lighting is either too dark or too bright.  The sound effects are either too soft or too loud or simply don't match the action.  Dialogue is too quiet, the blocking is all awkward, everybody's sight lines always seem to be juuuuuuuust off, and the characters are a hodgepodge of one-dimensional cliches that barely even flesh out the minimal expectations of their archetypes.

But honestly, none of that is the true problem.  Those are all the kinds of things that just put me in a frame of mind where I say, "Oh, I'm watching one of these movies.  Guess I won't take it seriously."  No, the thing that ruined this for me is that it's just edited so poorly.

I think I might go on a limb here and say that The Third Society has the worst editing I've ever seen in a film.  It has the overall mark of sloppiness - transitions are awkward and cuts happen too quickly or too late, or the audio and video don't quite match.  But it goes beyond that; scenes rarely even make sense, and on the rare occasion that they do, they almost certainly don't have an organic conclusion.

Here's a good example of what I mean.  At one point, Jones is on a dock, pointing a gun at the villain.  The villain gets into a boat and speeds away.  Jones runs back to her motorcycle and starts driving.  There's insert shots of flashbacks and other nonsense.  Then Jones runs onto a dock and points a gun at the villain., what exactly happened just now?  I have to assume, based on what I've just seen, that Jones just chased the bad guy - who, I'll remind you, is in a boat - on her motorcycle.  How did that work, exactly?  What did he do, go to the dock next door?

I'm left with no concept of time or space or reason.  I have a general understanding of what has happened, but rather than a distinct outline of plot progression, I have a vague impression.

Here's probably the worst example of all: during the airport chase / fight scene, I didn't actually know what happened to the airplane.

It starts out with some overhead footage of the plane taxiing down the runway.  (Escorted, by the way, by three of the villains' cars, as if that's a thing that would ever be needed, or even physically possible while it takes off.)  There's various cuts to insert shots and other perspectives on the scene, and some footage of Jones zooming around on her motorcycle.  At some point there's an insert shot of a plane way high up in the sky, and then more footage of the escort cars driving around. Eventually it cuts back to Jones going to a hangar where the three cars are parked, and then she fights the goons.

But since you never actually see the plane taking off, compounded with the fact that those escort cars never break their stride, compounded by the fact that nobody says anything and Jones hasn't left the airport - and in fact, goes to a hangar, a place where planes are known to hang out - the implication is that the plane turned around and parked.

Which makes it even more confusing when you find out later that the plane did take off, because now you're trying to figure out what the hell the goons are trying to accomplish by heading back to the hangar instead of just leaving.

All of this is exacerbated by the music.  There's only basically two songs that play for the vast majority of the soundtrack, and neither one ever feels appropriate to the mood.  You never know what emotion you're supposed to be feeling.

I would love to tell you that this movie is hilariously bad, but constantly asking, "Who is that?  What's he doing now?" isn't funny.  It just makes you feel like you're watching a movie with your dad, except that now he's you.

Still.  It's rare to see a movie this ridiculous, and it is kinda nifty to see a generic action movie where almost all the good guy roles are filled by women.  So, I can't say it's a waste of time.

Since this movie is an exercise in borderline insanity, I'm going to put it in the Varsity Bad Movie category.  You will have more fun watching this in a group than you would alone, but this is not something you can just randomly spring on your friends at your weekly bad movie night.  You have to make sure in advance that everybody is fully committed.  Birdemic it ain't.  This is to Ed Wood what Pasolini is to Spielberg.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

A good amount.  It gets the full obscurity bonus of 50 cred since it has less than 100 ratings on IMDb, plus a "You've probably never heard of them" bonus of 15 cred for having a cast and crew of unknowns.  I'll give it another 5 points for J.A. Steel being a stuntwoman-turned-director, and another 5 points for being an independent passion project.  Unfortunately, I don't think I can give it a recommendation bonus to pad this out any more.

So that adds up to a still-respectable total of 75 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Unfortunately, it is not on Youtube or any streaming services as far as I can tell, but it was released on DVD.  You can get a new copy relatively cheap or you can pick up a used copy even cheaper.