Judge Patrick Bromley has a lethal ladle...for his lethal gravy.
Three times the action, three times the women, three times the excitement!
I love the exploitation movies of the '70s and '80s, but like any genre of somewhat ill repute, it is a minefield of awfulness to be navigated very delicately. There is gold to be found, for sure, but the search requires making your way through a whole lot of garbage in the hopes of finding something of value. If you're a true fan of exploitation movies, you can find something to like in some of the very worst movies, because they at least will capitalize on one or more of those exploitable elements in a way that is visceral and pure, even when the rest of the film is dull or boring or incompetent (or, as is so often the case, all three). Often times, even a sub-par exploitation movie can be a more thrilling or exciting experience than a slicker, more expensive Hollywood production, if only because they distill what we love about going to the movies into it's most basic form. The best exploitation movies work as pure cinema.
I won't make the case that the three films featured on Shout! Factory's Lethal Ladies 2 collection are the best that the exploitation genre has to offer, but none are without their charms. On the first disc of the two-disc collection is The Arena (otherwise known as Naked Warriors, which is a far more accurate description of what can be found in the movie) from 1974, starring Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) and Margaret Markov (The Hot Box; and, yes, for those of you who know these kinds of things, that makes The Arena a reunion of the stars of Black Mama, White Mama) as female slaves in ancient Rome who are turned into gladiators in order to entertain a population bored by traditional man-on-man violence. That's pretty much the whole movie; there's a fight, then everyone takes off their clothes, then there's another fight (by the way, I am in no way condemning this model; more movies should be made with this exact structure). Strangely enough, The Arena is both the best and worst movie in this collection; it has the highest production values, the best actors and the illusion of "class," but that's part of what keeps it from achieving the kind of crazed euphoria that some of the best exploitation films achieve. Sure, it's got sex and violence—and lots of it—but tries to take itself so seriously that it's often hard to have any fun. While it's probably the most respectable and well-made movie in the collection (and is the only of the bunch to include the not-unpleasant sight of Pam Grier in various states of undress), it lacks the sense of lightness and fun found in both Fly Me and Cover Girl Models. It is, for lack of a better word, the "rapiest" of the three films, and while that's long been a staple of the exploitation movie (unfortunately), it's never entertaining to watch.
Both 1973's Fly Me and 1975's Cover Girl Models, both included on the second disc, cover pretty much the same territory as one another: beautiful women (in the first movie it's flight attendants; in the second, models) are caught up in intrigue, find a little romance and take their clothes off a lot. Both films are directed by legendary exploitation filmmaker Cirio Santiago, who made dozens of cheap action films in the Philippines during the 1970s and '80s. His body of work—and the exploitation films produced in the Philippines in general—are covered in good detail in the 2010 documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! (from the makers of Not Quite Hollywood, another great documentary about the exploitation cinema of Australia), which is required viewing for anyone interested in the titles included on Lethal Ladies 2. Not only does it give context to just where these movies fit within the larger scope of exploitation movies, but also provides some necessary production information that will give you a better appreciation for what the movies actually pull off.
I find myself somewhat torn about the movies on Lethal Ladies 2, in particular Fly Me. It's often tedious and boring, ineptly made and incredibly silly, but these qualities are also part of its charm. If you're going to enjoy exploitation movies, you have to be able to take the good with the bad—and there is a lot of bad. But so many of these movies—and that includes Fly Me—are so unique and strange in the way they combine so many tones and genres that, difficult to sit through as it may be at times, makes them totally original experiences (even when they're just combining elements from other, better movies). The three flight attendants in Fly Me are in completely different movies: one a broad comedy about a young lady saddled with an overbearing (and pre-PC stereotypical) mother, another a kung-fu romance and the third in a seedy, sleazy movie about bondage, rape and drug addiction. These things don't all belong in the same movie, but, again, such is the charm of something like Fly Me. When it works, it's because it's a crazy mess, not in spite of that fact. Plus, like a lot of the movies produced under the great Roger Corman, there's a lot of talent on display in the titles included here—talent that would go on to leave a permanent mark in movie history. The Arena is edited by none other than Joe Dante, future director of The Howling and Gremlins (and one of my favorite filmmakers ever); Cover Girl Models; none other than Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme directed second unit on Fly Me. Even Cirio Santiago is not without talent; he makes trash, to be sure, but he made it quickly, efficiently and effectively.
All three movies collected in the two-disc Lethal Ladies 2 are presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio; The Arena in 2.35:1 (except for two "missing" scenes, during which the frame changes to 1.33:1), and the other two in 1.85:1. The quality of the transfers varies somewhat from movie to movie, but overall things look pretty good—especially for films that are older, made on the cheap and which have (arguably) seen better days. Fly Me (and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Arena) shows its age the most, with the first half of the movie plagued by some pretty big scratches and print damage. It clears up after a while and ends up looking pretty good overall; to be honest, even the dirty first half isn't a dealbreaker, since the beat-up look of these movies is part of the charm (hence the digitally-added scratches to Grindhouse). Otherwise, all three films look surprisingly well maintained; fairly soft overall (though that's more likely due to the source, as it was the shooting style of the era), but strong colors and a mostly clean image. Cheap exploitation movies aren't supposed to look this good, but leave it to the good people at Shout! Factory to do another first-rate job on even these titles.
The only title of the three that has any bonus features is The Arena, for which director Steve Carver has recorded a commentary track. A featurette on the film includes reminiscences from Carver, producer Roger Corman and co-star Margaret Markov. The incredibly entertaining original theatrical trailer and several TV spots are also included.
I won't say that any of the movies included on Lethal Ladies 2 are the best that exploitation cinema has to offer, but anyone who's already a fan of the genre will want to check these titles out. If you're seen Machete Maidens Unleashed! (and I really recommend that you do) and are looking for somewhere to start exploring the films made in the Philippines, this set actually would make a good jumping off point. Mostly, though, if your bag is seeing attractive actresses get naked and execute some fairly weak fight choreography, look no further.
Editor's Note: After publishing this review, we were contacted by Joe Dante to clarify some misinformation.
Joe Dante here.
I'm dutybound to report that although I'm credited with editing The Arena, I'm not sure I ever even saw it all the way through. I didn't meet director Steve Carver or Roger Corman until months after the picture was released. These were the waning days of Americanizing the credits on foreign movies, and my pal Jon Davison had just started working for Corman. Jon thought it would be funny (!) to change the editing credit to my name as part of his campaign to get me to come out to LA and work for New World. My only other NW editing credit is Grand Theft Auto, which I really DID cut.
Just for the record…
The ladies of Lethal Ladies 2 may not exactly be lethal, but they sure can be fun.
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Scales of Justice, Fly Me
Perp Profile, Fly Me
Studio: Shout! Factory
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Scales of Justice, The Arena
Perp Profile, The Arena
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, The Arena
Scales of Justice, Cover Girl Models
Perp Profile, Cover Girl Models
Studio: Shout! Factory
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