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Hipster Holy Grail: Sweet Justice (1992)

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

Despite giving Sweet Justice a slightly-better-than-awful final score, I cannot bring it in me to recommend it to anyone.  It feels overly long at 90 minutes and never gels into the sort of kick-ass vigilante action movie you keep thinking it'll be.

My Rating: 2 / 5

The Plot Summary

Sweet Justice opens with the semi-titular character, Sunny Justice (Finn Carter), in a boxing match with her boyfriend, whose name I never picked up on.  Sunny easily wins the match.  Her boyfriend laughs off the pain because he knows they're going to have sex later, so it's still a win for him.

Then we cut away from that nonsense so we can get into the movie's actual plot.  Sunny's sister, Suzanne Justice (Cheryl Paris) is the mayor of some small town in the country.  Suzanne seems to be a reasonably fair and intelligent leader, but she's also got a touch of corruption in her.  She and her ex-husband / current sheriff, Colton (Marc Singer), have had some slightly-illegal dealings in the past with Rivas (Frank Gorshin), a nebulous corporate muckety-muck.

You don't really get a good explanation of what the business relationship between the three is, but it's pretty clear that Suzanne and Colton have covered up some shady dealings in the past and made a fair chunk of change off it.  Despite that, Suzanne has some sense of ethics and puts a limit on the exact amount of morality she's willing to sell.

After having sex with Colton behind a restaurant - I guess the filmmakers decided they needed Suzanne to have a sex scene in order to balance her sister's sex scene - Suzanne goes off to independently investigate a firm that paid her to dump some waste in her town.  She realizes their waste is full of nasty toxins that are going to seep into the public water supply, and that goes one step too far for her.  Suzanne confronts both Colton and Rivas separately to push back on it and demand that this arrangement stop ASAP.

Then an unseen stranger sics a German Shepherd on her and Suzanne is mauled to death.

Sunny hears about her sister's death and returns to town for the funeral.  While there she talks to Colton and we learn that Sunny and Colton were once lovers until Suzanne caught his eye, and ever since the two of them hooked up, Sunny left town and never looked back.  But deep down, she still loved her sister and never wanted her to die at the fangs of an attack dog.  Sunny does some prying and suspects Suzanne's death was a murder rather than some freak accident.  Colton advises her not to pry too much and basically tells her to leave town, unless she wants to have sex with him, in which case... maybe?

Sunny does a little bit of amateur detectiving and learns about the toxins that are being dumped.  In short order, she makes the connection to Rivas and believes that he was behind Suzanne's murder.  Shortly afterward, a couple of hired goons drive after Sunny while she's on her motorcycle and run her off the road.  She beats the shit out of them and goes to confront Colton, who isn't willing to make any arrests quite yet for nebulous reasons.

Fearing that she's about to get in over her head, Sunny decides to call in some favors.  There's a short conversation here between her and her boyfriend where we find out that she was part of an elite military unit made up entirely of women that trained for special ops.  There were six of them altogether and they were pretty psyched to be deployed on ass-kicking missions all over the world, but before being deployed even once, the unit was disbanded and they were all honorably discharged.

Thus begins the "getting the band back together" portion of the movie, which takes up about twenty minutes or so and completely destroys any momentum that may have been in place.  Sunny goes to find each of her old military pals and we get a little snippet of their daily routines so you can see what they're up to these days: running a bar, running a gym, running a library, etc.  None of it is terribly exciting and nobody has enough of a personality or back story to stand out.  There's the tiniest bit of drama when one of them doesn't immediately agree to join Sunny's new team, but then she joins and that drama is over.

They have a team training montage where they all work out and practice martial arts to get back in a groove together.  And after they feel reasonably primed and ready to kick ass, they carry out their first mission, which is blowing up the dump truck full of toxic waste that's being leaked into the town's water supply.  Which... uh... seems a little counterproductive.  But whatever, I'm not a highly-trained special ops soldier, what do I know.

Rivas learns about the destruction and sends a whole army of his goons after Sunny's team, which leads to a pretty decent shootout / fight sequence.  Then there's a short respite where Sunny confronts Colton and demands that he help her team out.  When he refuses, she forces him and his deputies into a holding cell so they can stay put while her unit finishes cleaning up the town.

Cue the final action sequence(s), in which Sunny's team punches / shoots their way through wave after wave of nameless goon.  There's some decent carnage and at least one great van explosion.  It all leads up to the final confrontation between Sunny and Rivas, who seems to surrender willingly after an over-acted sob/somersault maneuver (a sobersault?).  Then Rivas draws a gun from his ankle holster and they have a standoff.  Until Colton shows up out of nowhere and shoots Rivas in the chest.

Sunny is disappointed.  Partly this has to be because she didn't get to deliver the death blow, but partly it's because she wanted to take Rivas in alive, ostensibly so he could be tried and sentenced in court.  She's about to leave when Colton tells her he has to arrest her - it's pretty hard to ignore the innumerable homicides that have just been committed.  Sunny just sneers, "Eh, self-defense, you can write that up," and tries to leave again - so Colton holds her at gunpoint.

Then he brings out a German Shepherd, and Sunny realizes that Colton killed Suzanne all along.  This twist pisses me off for a lot of reasons.  First of all, it's not that much of a twist - Colton has been a piece of shit the whole movie and has given us no reason to think that he wasn't involved in Suzanne's murder.  But secondly, what motivation does he have to out himself now?  The death of Rivas and all his colleagues makes it easy to wash Colton's culpability cleanly out of any of his past deeds, so he's got a nice, easy case for himself.  Sure, maybe he needs to put something down on the paperwork as to what happened, so either he can arrest Sunny as promised or he can just call in to the station and be like, "Just got here, everybody's dead and I don't see Sunny anywhere."  Either way, he's still in a good spot and he still has plausible deniability to any guilt, so why ruin a good thing?

But thirdly, this twist ends up being how he dies, which is the stupidest way I've ever seen a villain get taken out.  He commands the dog to attack, so Sunny dives into a pool to hide.  The dog doesn't want to go swimming, so Colton starts beating the dog and yelling at it.  Then the dog gets angry and bites Colton to death.

That... is not a satisfying ending.

But it is an ending.  Sunny gets out of the pool and goes to join her comrades, and other than the one team mate who got shot, they all leave no worse for the wear.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

This week I'll start with some positivity before I start complaining.  There's at least three good things I can think to say:

1) First is that the overall pacing and story structure is solid.  It's not the most exciting praise, but it definitely matters.  Anytime I watch a movie for the Hipster Holy Grail, I keep worrying I'm about to see something like Fatal Justice or The Ultimate Weapon, which have so little regard for basic things like "story" and "logic" that I find myself unable to pay attention.  I may still end up hating a movie when all is said and done, but I can never totally write it off when I at least understand what it's doing from beginning to end.

2) Next is that the cast is decent.  Nobody's stellar, but they all deliver what they're asked and the action stars are believable.  The femme fatales are all feminine and fatal, and they have enough charisma and physicality to be believable as ass-kicking war machines.  That matters.  See my review of Senorita Justice for a counter-example.

3) Most importantly, the action scenes are solid.  The fighting looks pretty good for the most part and there's great stunt work.  There's also a few explosions that are shot well and function as the punctuation marks they're meant to be.

Enough of the movie is technically competent that I was willing to go along with it.  In fact, I think I'd probably have given this movie at least a baseline pass (3 / 5) if not for one fatal mistake, which is that at about the forty minute mark or so it starts to introduce Sunny's team.  Up until that point, Sweet Justice is a relatively punchy, if not necessarily good, action movie.  It sets the stage for a Walking Tall-styled "one (wo)man vs the establishment," clean-up-the-trash revenge movie.  And that would have been great.  Then Sunny's friends show up and it starts to drag.

The problem is that I can only give a shit about so many people at a time.  For all her faults, Sunny has a clear and believable conflict: her sister was murdered and she wants to find out who did it.  That's great.  Then you throw in five or six other ass-kicking ladies with interchangeable back stories and I forget if I'm supposed to care about them at all.  Sunny's motivation gets completely lost in the shuffle. Whatever steam the movie had behind her quest fizzles out, and by the hour mark it just turns into "faceless lady death squad versus faceless corporate greed squad."

To better illustrate my point: when Rivas is killed and Colton re-enters the movie in the last scene, I had actually forgotten why Sunny was even in this mess until she says, "I needed to catch him alive to get justice for my sister."  I was like, "Oh, that's right!  She was murdered, wasn't she?  Jesus, that felt like two movies ago."

It's one of those cases where the swell in the cast felt like they were trying to pull off something epic, whereas a smaller, more intimate story would have had far more tension and empathy.  But even that tradeoff doesn't work.  When you're writing an action movie, there's one simple rule you have to follow: the only reason to introduce more characters with guns is to rack up the body count.  Sweet Justice kicked that rule to the curb; only one of Sunny's interchangeable team mates is killed.  Why bother letting her friends take away from Sunny's exploits and steal the spotlight if they're all just going to come out on top at the end?  A story like this only works if her bad-ass friends get killed and raise the stakes on that final confrontation between Sunny and the villain.

It may be cruel, but let's be honest.  Nobody wants to watch a movie about six people having kind of a bad day.  We want to watch them have the worst day, which means most of those fuckers are dead meat.  Why do you think there's only two survivors in Predator?

Of course, I'm analyzing this from an action movie perspective, which I don't think was actually the filmmakers' primary intent.  The real reason they introduce Sunny's team is so they can cram in more T&A.  There's one scene in particular that brings the movie to a full stop, and it's such overt trash it's almost hilarious.  In the middle of the ladies' training montage, there's a hard cut to the six of them having a communal bath.  They have a pointless conversation over the gratuitous nudity where they basically just re-affirm that they are, in fact, training, and that they will, in fact, fight the bad guys.  Oh, here's my boobs, by the way.  Got it?  Okay, great, let's get back to the training montage.

On a related note, here is so far one of my favorite pieces of trivia to show up on IMDb:

That tells you pretty much all you need to know, doesn't it?

I actually kind of enjoyed the first act and was even starting to get into it a bit.  But despite the nice explosions and some pretty good action scenes, Sweet Justice is a disappointment.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it 40 obscurity cred for having under 200 IMDb ratings and then another 10 pedigree cred since the cast is made up of a ton of B movie stars, Finn Carter and Marc Singer among them.  The production company, Double Helix Films, is easily worth another 5 pedigree points.  As for hipstery content - I'll give it ten points.  It's a movie with "justice" in the title that features an elite military unit with gratuitous nudity, which is at least a little bit hipstery if not particularly innovative or original.

That adds up to a total of 65 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  This feels very average, like a baseline hipster movie.  It hits enough beats that you could call it a hipster movie, but there's nothing special or memorable about it.  You could almost use that as a rating system, though.  "I give this movie two and a half Sweet Justices."

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch Sweet Justice on Youtube.