Sunday, May 12, 2019

AMAZONS (1986)

Sword and sorcery, a genre distinct from Tolkienesque "high fantasy," had its heyday in the 1980s, heralded by John Milius's Conan the Barbarian. The fad quickly faded in the U.S. but persisted elsewhere, fed by numerous Italian filmmakers and the likes of Roger Corman, who put an Argentinian protege, Alex Sessa, to work on Amazons, a film doomed never to live up to its Boris Vallejo poster. This film has a comparatively authentic pedigree, adapted by fantasy author Charles R. Saunders from one of his own stories, though from what I can tell the African-inspired story has been whitewashed, as they say now, to accommodate a caucasian cast of actors.

What we have here is a good kingdom, defended in part by an army of amazons, under attack by the forces of the evil sorcerer Kalungo (Joseph Whipp). Kalungo's powers are awesome: he can cast lightning from his fingers and bring multiple bolts blasting down on his enemies. In closer quarters, he can pull Jedi-style force tricks, inflicting suffering on his enemies without taxing the special-effects budget. The good wizard on the other side is no match for him, but the problem with evil sorcerers is that they often have unique vulnerabilities. Kalungo, for instance, is susceptible to the Sword of Azundati, the sort of legendary weapon that tends to be found on fantasy worlds. Fortunately for him, at least in the short term, it takes an arduous quest to find the sword.

Doubly fortunate for the evil one, the amazon general who orders the quest (Danitza Kingsley) is his secret ally, spy and lover. She assigns two warriors to the task: her own daughter Tashi (Penelope Reed) and Dyala (Windsor Taylor-Randolph), the daughter of her old dead rival. Tashi's mom killed Dyala's mom some time back, but not before the latter cut one of her hands off. Still carrying a grudge in her artificial hand, the general orders Tashi to kill Dyala once she has the sword. The shared dangers and mutual rescues involved in a quest draw the younger women together, however, and when the supreme moment comes, Tashi can't go through with it. Instead, she sacrifices herself when the were-cat sent by Kalungo to stalk the questers attacks, leaving Dyala to pursue a lone course of vengeance against the sorcerer and the traitorous general.

Amazons is cheap stuff. Whatever Saunders' intentions, the idea on the production side seems to have been to provide a platform for topless shots and a number of clumsily staged fight scenes. No one on screen impresses as a warrior or a performer, but at least Taylor-Randolph (perhaps better known as Mindi Miller) goes enjoyably over the top during Dyala's climactic fight with Kalungo, prefacing the final blow with a mighty "NOW! YOU! DIIIIIEEEE!"  There's clearly some imagination at work here, from the savages who sacrifice a pack of passive priestesses and ride a slave-drawn wagon with additional slaves as human hubcaps to the bizarre idea introduced near the end that Dyala has a spirit tree that can be chopped down to kill her -- except that it ends up falling on the traitor general who'd been chopping it down. But the production tends to homogenize whatever ideas Saunders had to the literal generic level, while the actors do next to nothing to bring those ideas to life.

One thing I did like about the picture was its unromantic treatment of its two heroines. Amazons proves to be a story of female friendship. Neither Dyala nor Tashi has a boyfriend, while the one amazon who consorts with a man is a traitor. In the film's happy ending, the sorceress who was custodian of the Sword of Azundati arranges for the martyred Tashi to return to life. She and Dyala ride off together, in theory to find more adventures. Depending on how you imagine amazons, they can be battle buddies or something more intimate, but that's up to you the viewer -- especially since the characters were never seen again on film.

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