Review by David Carter
Posted on 26 June 2009
Source Brentwood DVD
Categories Favorites: The Action Movie
American director Andy Sidaris (1931-2007) began in television, where he became an innovator of sports cinematography and won an Emmy. The “Sidaris style” – quick, tight camera movement and a focus on sport as narrative – remains the industry standard for everything from football to the Olympics. Having excelled at television, Sidaris turned his focus to making action films in the “girls with guns” subgenre. An uncompromising independent, Sidaris wholly financed the films himself, handling the writing, directing, and cinematography duties alone in the same way Russ Meyer had in the 1960s and 1970s. Sidaris shared Meyer’s affinity for beautiful women and filled his films with dozens of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets. Twelve of Sidaris’ films – Malibu Express through Return to Savage Beach – form a single storyline and subvert several conventions of the action genre, most notably the role of women. Over the coming weeks we will be looking at four of Sidaris’ films in which his style, obsessions, and achievements are most evident.
Guns, the fifth film in Sidaris’ series, begins with an exchange between the film’s primary villain and two hired assassins, Tito and Cubby. Jack Degas, also known as international gun smuggler Jack of Diamonds, has put a hit on Hawaii-based federal agent Nicole Justin. Rookie agent Nicole isn’t the real target of Degas’ attack, however. It is her partner Donna Hamilton that has been the thorn in his side for years, and the murder of Nicole is intended to be a message. Tito and Cubby bungle the hit, murdering the wrong woman and killing another undercover female agent, Rocky. They are successful in leaving Degas’ message, however, a bloody playing card with the words “To Donna.”
The playing card allows Donna and Nicole to track the would-be assassins to Las Vegas and there they join forces with local agents to determine who is behind the attack. Degas’ henchmen ambush them not soon after, employing a top-secret Chinese super weapon in an attempt to finish the job. Donna and Nicole escape again, defeating their attackers while the male agents stand around looking helpless. Degas, his assistant Tong, and his mistress Cash unleash an all-out assault on the federal agents, killing several in the process, in an attempt to lure Donna into a trap. The agents eventually discover Degas’ master plan: keep Donna and Nicole busy in Las Vegas while his agency smuggles the super weapons through Hawaii. Donna plans to return to Hawaii immediately but is forced to stay in Vegas when Degas kidnaps her mother to force a showdown between the two.
Gender is an important motif in Guns. The female agents are undercover, thus requiring them to have “secret identities” for lack of a better term. In each case, the agent’s cover profession is decidedly feminine, a stark contrast to the reality of their very dangerous “masculine” line of work. They disguise themselves as scantily clad lounge singers, oil wrestlers, and magician’s assistants—roles that are sexist to a certain degree. But by showing this sexist presentation of women as false, Sidaris manages to subvert traditional gender roles in the action genre.
Sidaris’ women are neither damsels-in-distress dependent on men to rescue them nor femme fatales preying on men through their sexual charms. Their portrayal as sex objects is only a ruse used to hide their true strength, a quality depicted as neither feminine nor masculine, simply human. Sidaris’ intent to glorify the women’s abilities without tying them to a specific gender identity is evident through his choice of language. Donna and Nicole are never referred to as the best “female agents” but simply the “best agents.” Even Jack Degas, played with scenery-chewing machismo by Erik Estrada, does not acknowledge that his opponents are female. Gender is a non-issue for the characters in the film, a vast departure from action tropes where the achievements of heroines are marginalized. Donna and Nicole have no men waiting in the wings if they get in trouble and their victories aren’t depicted as merely accidental but instead as earned through superior abilities.
The idea that women are more able than men is reinforced through Tito and Cubby’s use of unconvincing drag attire throughout the film. Superficially intended as comic relief, contextually within the film the men employ female garb in an attempt to disguise themselves. By masquerading as the “weaker” sex, they believe they are less conspicuous. Yet as within all of Sidaris’ films it is the female that is truly powerful. The pair’s only success comes while in drag since, in essence, they have to become “female” to have strength or power, particularly the power to kill. Of the film’s many murders, only one is committed by a male and only after his victims have been subdued. For both the heroes and the villains, the most frequent outcome of any event is a woman succeeding where a man has failed.
The lead actresses are also somewhat of a departure from the traditional action mold. Dona Speir’s alter ego Donna Hamilton is based in large on her own character: athletic, stoic, and aggressive. Though a former Playboy Playmate, Speir’s frame is lean and muscular and her wardrobe is more demure than that of her counterparts, reflecting an emphasis on her physical strength rather than beauty. Speir was the face of many of Sidaris’ films and represents the ideal woman of his universe: intelligent and resourceful first; beautiful second. To reinforce the idea of Donna as the ideal woman, Sidaris makes her the most desired by the male characters. Donna doesn’t succumb to their charms, however, and remains more focused on the mission than romance.
Guns sees Donna get a new partner in the form of Roberta Vasquez, a replacement for Donna’s more stereotypical ditzy blonde partner, Taryn. Vasquez, a former police officer, better fits the mold of an action starlet physically but deviates from tradition by being a woman of color depicted in a non-stereotypical way. Race, like gender, is a non-issue in Sidaris’ universe. Of the Donna/Nicole pairing, Nicole is the more amorous of the two but is chaste when compared to many of her female action star counterparts. She has a long-term boyfriend and, as in many Sidaris’ films, sex is implied rather than shown.
Guns’ climax sees Donna rescue a captive woman and avenge the murder of her father; two jobs that action cinema almost exclusively reserves for males. This film, like the others in Sidaris’ oeuvre, goes against that trend and allows women to be heroes and villains in equal measure and depicts them as wholly superior to the males. To present this alternate take on gender in action, Sidaris typically employed a half dozen beautiful women and a few muscular men to serve as their inept but well-meaning foils, leading to his films most often being labeled as sexploitation. You’ll find that he is much more interested in celebration than exploitation, and to dismiss the films as such is more of a statement on the reluctance of audiences and critics to accept a female-driven action film than it is of the films themselves.
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