THE BLOOD BOND SAGA: SHADOWGUARD Review
Set in the fictional South East Asian country of Purma, a country in the throes of a military coup, an attack is made on a much-respected religious leader, the Bagwun, which he barely survives. Only a blood transfusion will save his life, but the Bagwun's blood type is incredibly rare and all the available donors have been assassinated. All except for John Tremayne (Michael Biehn), a washed-up ex US military man, who now resides in the dangerous, rebel-controlled North of the country. The Bagwun's personal protector, Deva (Phoenix Valen) decides to go it alone, track down Tremayne, and persuade him to help save the Bagwun's life, only to discover he is an embittered, alcoholic deadbeat who don't believe in nothin' no more.
The first, painfully obvious problem with SHADOWGUARD is that it was clearly made on a shoestring budget that continually limits what they are able to do onscreen. Now, I'm fine with a film having shoddy effects, or being rough around the edges because it was made on the cheap, so long as the director and crew are inventive with it. SHADOWGUARD clearly wants to be an all-out 80s action movie in the vein of RAMBO or COMMANDO, but simply doesn't have the necessary resources or expertise at its disposal. There are numerous gunfights throughout the film, but it appears that at no time was a weapon actually fired. Actors can clearly be seen jerking their arms to simulate recoil, with muzzle flare and gunshot sound effects added in later, which is fine if you're making a student film, but not when it's a real production with internationally recognizable actors in it, like Michael Biehn and Simon Yam.
Much of the action seems to have been filmed in and around the same building, shot from different angles to represent a number of different locations. The big finale takes place at a hospital in the Purmese capital, a hospital that only has signs in English and appears to have only one bed, curtained off from the main reception area. When the climactic gunfight takes place, the FX department appear to have gone all-out and rigged the walls of the corridors with squibs. This is plainly obvious, as you can see exactly where holes have been cut out of the wall and then painted over in a colour vaguely approximating the rest of the set.
The other baffling aspect of the film is Michael Biehn, who not only stars, but also directs and is credited as one of the film's six writers. Has his star really fallen so far that this is the only work he can get? Surely, if Steven Seagal can still manage to be gainfully employed then Biehn can do much better than this. In all fairness, he looks to be in fantastic shape. When we first see him, he is clad only in a pair of natty old boxer shorts - and the man is ripped! Perhaps it's been a while since he's had a hot meal, but there is not an ounce of fat on the man. His line readings are certainly the best on display too and he does his best to sell scene after scene of risible dialogue, although I swear you can see him wince at the cliché-ridden clunkers on more than one occasion. As far as Biehn's directorial style goes, I would have thought years spent working alongside James Cameron and Michael Bay - master orchestrators of high-octane spectacle - would have paid off in some small way, but I guess not. To say his input was anonymous, would be the highest compliment I could pay the director.
The rest of the cast only helps to make Biehn stick out like a lost soul stumbling through the darkness, with Simon Yam visibly gritting his teeth through every one of the brief few minutes he is onscreen. The supporting cast of random goons, grunts and hospital staff showcase a baffling array of accents and ability - not just in acting, but simply in managing to speak their lines at all. Soldier #1 may rattle off his dialogue with the proficiency of a West Coast Asian American, while Soldier #2 can barely enunciate a single word, but precious few among them are able to deliver anything approaching an authentic performance. There's also a brief cameo from Michael Wong as a helicopter pilot, and one can't help but wonder if he is only in the film because the filmmakers wanted to play with his chopper. Which brings us to the film's heroine, Deva, as portrayed by Phoenix Valen.
There is no denying that Valen is gorgeous to look at, but her acting range never extends much beyond a furrowed brow or a doe-eyed pout. She has an inexplicable trans-Atlantic accent for a girl who supposedly grew up in the bosom of a man who can barely get his lines out, and at no point do we believe her to be the naïve warrior she is purported to be. The intention was clearly to anchor the film around a gorgeous but deadly martial artiste who could break hearts and kick butt simultaneously, but while Valen has clearly had plenty of kung-fu and tai chi training, she is let down by sluggish and laborious choreography that makes her fight scenes look more like a self-defense demonstration than a highly-skilled fight to the death.
SHADOWGUARD really has nothing to recommend it and is frequently more often an endurance test than a slice of throwaway entertainment. The plot is poorly conceived, and filled with characters who are frankly illogical. It is never revealed who Tremayne is, why he is living in the dangerous part of Purma, or why the military, who we are told "don't take kindly to strangers," have allowed him to live there for so long. That any woman, let alone Deva, would be accepted as personal protector to the country's most senior monk makes no sense, nor that someone who attracts the attention of everybody in any room she ever walks into would be able to mount any kind of secret mission without being instantly noticed. The dialogue is leaden and cringeworthy, the sound mix uneven and littered with hiss and lacklustre ADR, the performances are never anything more than tolerable and the production values so low it makes the Max Fischer Players look like Merchant Ivory. Frankly I'm distraught that, with no press screenings held, I was forced to pay US$8 for the privilege of enduring this disaster. But that said, my financial contribution no doubt went a considerable way to helping the film recoup its production costs. We can only wait with baited breath to see what future installments of THE BLOOD BOND SAGA have in store for us.