Now here is something you don't see everyday: a no budget independent movie that outshines the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster in the area of imagination – and it comes from those New York knuckleheads of low brow pandering, Troma. That's right, TROMA! When you come to think about it, the notion of Troma releasing an artistically challenging, visually striking motion picture with brains are about as remote as owner Lloyd Kaufman doing any video interview or introduction without once mentioning his ass. It just doesn't happen. Troma is the home of the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman. It is known for championing the early career of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and riding their coattails for a little blackmail/ bottom line advancement) and scouring the planet for some of the most miserable, misguided Grade-Z cinematic pond scum ever scraped together for home video release. So its surprising, nay, AMAZING that Viral Assassins, a newly named revamp of the 1996 independent film Just Work, is as good as it is. Thought provoking and clever with a superb sense of style and atmosphere, Robert Larkin's gloom and doom denouncement of the US health care system supplants HMOs with DOAs, all in a massive campaign of cost cutting (and life ending) measures.
In a hotel room somewhere in future America, three government assassins meet to discuss their "business" quarter. They are part of the Federal goon squad, hired to "exterminate" those citizens who break the law. In this not too distant future, the US has been plagued by a disease causing toxic gas and the cost of caring for the infected are staggering. As a result, laws and directives have been passed making being contaminated a crime. Tanks of purifying, "curative" air are mandatory household and business accessories and everyone is required to have a health check and report their medical results. Those who are tainted or refuse to comply, are killed.
Bobby, Billy and Sydney "The Kid" are swapping war stories about recent assignments. Hoping to impress his pals, the inexperienced Sydney paints a wild portrait of a woodlands stalk and slaughter, bragging about his use of a bow and arrow to achieve his aims. The truth is far more mundane. Next up is Bobby. He offers a serial killer style account of each and every case he's "closed" during the last month. As they talk, the men drink and joke. When its Billy's turn, however, the proceedings take a decidedly dark twist. Appears Billy made an "error" on his last assignment and it threatens the entire project. Something must be done to set the balance right. And an unsuspecting bureaucrat with a surprise interest in the matter may hold the keys to wrapping up this mistake once and for all.
As a nation on the verge of health care bankruptcy, with more and more people entering the realm of the uninsured every day, Viral Assassins couldn't be more timely, telling, or threatening. Imagining a government so Hellbent on preventing a pandemic (or in this case, keeping one under control) that they would resort to making certain activities "illegal" is not so far from the reality of our current behavior modification crazy Congress. Indeed, just look at what happened when we ran out of the flu vaccine earlier this year. You half expected the President to call out the National Guard to make sure his constituency had immunization from the body aches and stuffiness associated with a bout with influenza. We are a very reactionary society, so much so that there are people running around with multiple prescriptions of Cipro coursing through their blood stream on the off chance that a rogue nation has a dirty anthrax bomb with our mailing address on it ready for delivery. Between AIDS and SARS and the recent run of Mad Cow hysteria creating a cloud that the God fearing "Amurican" just can't tolerate, forming a fascists facsimile to manage a new plague seems like the logical, not the lame brained ideal. Viral Assassins dares to ask the question "what if" and the answer is as provocative and painful as it would be should something even remotely close to it actually occur.
It takes a subtle, sure hand to turn all this potential over the top Soylent Green-dom into a manageable, believable film. Director Larkin is just the man for the job. Filled to the brim with visionary influences that he can mold into a style all his own, Viral Assassins is loaded with minor touches and repeated motifs to sell the otherworldly environment here. Sure, there is massive cribbing from David Lynch, what with the unexplained man, covered in oil and coal dust, working in the bowels of the hotel (reminiscent of Eraserhead's man in the globe) to the hotel from Hades histrionics of Barton Fink era Coen Brothers (too bad the young bellboy in Assassins wasn't named Chet. It would have been perfect). Toss in a little Delicatessen-esque Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 50-60s kitsch animation and even a small amount of David Fincher fatalism and you've got the gist of Viral Assassins visual language. This is surreality in all its off-putting glory. Larkin's desire to make something special out of an incredibly limited budget and moderate set design has him relying on the past (men wear hats and smoke pipes, phones are of the dial variety) and pilfering his auteur brethren for imagination inspiration. Though his cheat sheet of mise-en-scene steals is sometimes so large as to be too obvious, Larkin sells his premise so well and so completely you will forget all about the visual name checking and merely get lost in the story.
The script here is also something special. It resonates with a science fiction finesse that doesn't ring false or forced. The first rule of speculative fiction is to create a believable universe, complete with its own rules and reasoning and then build characters, plots and themes into it. Larkin does that here, using detailed touches like wall signs, graffiti, radio ads and logo iconography to paint the post-plague America. Then he twists it, leaving everything tweaked just a little off center to establish the futuristic foundation. Before you know it, you are completely immersed in this world, understanding its rules, anticipating its logic and fearing its retribution. There is a lot of suspense in Larkin's film and most of it comes from the atmosphere and ambience. But there is also an inherent dread in the narrative, with its killing quota storyline and "anyone could be the next victim" dynamic. Larkin keeps us on our toes, using flashbacks and forwards to consistently juxtapose the truth with the lie, the actual with the ambiguous. Between the clever character development that uses both verbal and visual clues to tell us who these individuals are to the campy creative images tossed about, Viral Assassins shows signs of ingenuity and inventiveness that other End of the World/Armageddon goofs just don't get.
In reality, one could easily see Viral Assassins being made into a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, with superstar names like Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett in the roles of our intrepid tax-hired killers. Sure, the story would have to be opened up, and the killing sequences turned into action spectacles to feed the mainstream money making machine, but Viral Assassins has that kind of sure-fire premise that would almost always work. As pointed out, it has before, from Chuck Heston's jade people chunks to Michael Crichton's strained Andromeda. But no one has ever really approached it from a workaday, bureaucratic standpoint. There are no heroes or heroics in Viral Assassins. We are not witnessing a life or death struggle to save the planet or its population. No one is fighting the power or secretly keeping the man from murdering his people out of plague fear. No, these are just your everyday average working class assassins, locked in a career cycle that has them slaughtering "undesirables" for their paycheck. As an allegory for class war or politics, as a cautionary example for out of control governmental power, or as a stellar, visually involving piece of subtle science fiction, Viral Assassins transcends its no budget trappings to be a smart, involving thriller. Just don't be surprised if it comes true in the next twenty years.
OK, here is where the negative part of the review begins. This is one of the worst transfers EVER of a Troma release. Pixelated, murky, fuzzy and sometimes so soft as to obliterate details, the 1.33:1 full screen fiasco offered here is really obnoxious. While it creates a kind of print-oriented pastiche, which more or less matches the visual styling of the film (especially in the creepy basement/boiler room material) you know this is not how the director intended his work to look. In essence, it looks like Troma took a 16mm print that was blown up to 35mm and then transferred it to video. The grain is occasionally the size of watermelons and the minute we pass into shadows, those telltale square boxes show up. While it's possible that the original elements were unavailable (or too dilapidated to save) studios like Tempe have an easy time cleaning up cheap prints. Troma would be advised to take a page out of that independent's DVD handbook and fix Viral Assassins A.S.A.P.
The bland Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soundtrack offers nothing spectacular. The musical score is ersatz electronica and the dialogue is crisp and clear. Again, the source elements don't help, but at least we are not straining our ears to hear the actors deliver their lines or racking are brains to understand what it going on. But Larkin uses overlapping narrative strands (narration, radio reports, TV ads and actual exchanges between characters) and they all tend to fuse into something far too fussy. A streamlining via 5.1 is required here, since it would open up the atmosphere and provide each element its own channel. But this is still a nominal, average aural offering. Nothing great, but also nothing that destroys your enjoyment of the movie.
Where is director Robert Larkin? He is M.I.A. on this DVD release. Sure, we get Lloyd Kaufman's usual introduction, full of ass and fart jokes. We are also treated to a top ten trivia countdown from a couple of the Tromettes that offers occasional witty insight into the film (like its original title and budget requirements). But there should be a commentary, or at least an interview with the mysterious director. There is no indication of this film existing on the Internet Movie Database. Larkin is not listed either. It's almost as if this movie was a transmission from a parallel universe or beamed down from a far-off planet. Something giving us insight and access to the man who made this mini-masterwork would have been nice and should have been provided here. An alternative narrative track by Larkin would have helped explain his vision and his methods of achieving it. An interview would prove he's alive at the very least. But in actuality, all we get are Troma's usual bag of merchandising tricks: trailers, self-serving ads and promotional PSAs.
The Troma canon of craptacular cinema has always been a guilty, or perhaps, gullible pleasure for this critic. Between the reliance on toilet humor and the gore-drenched glory that Kaufman and crew love to wallow in, there is nothing more entertaining or shame inspiring. So to fault this New York independent for keeping its bread buttered with bare bodkins and its bottom line afloat with campy horror is unfair. But every once in a while, Troma does unearth a visionary work that seems to get lost amongst its sex and violence staples. A few months back, the brilliant Superstarlet A.D. was released: another futuristic view of a world gone female and fashion-conscious, its unique style and gorgeous visual ideals were more or less overlooked by the digital community. Now comes Viral Assassins. Again, we have a movie that wants to open up the compositional pallet, to explore ideas and images that shock, disturb and intrigue. And again, it will probably fall by the wayside in favor of other blood bath buffoonery. It's really too bad, though. Viral Assassins should be viewed by anyone with no-budget directing ambitions to see how imagination and invention can create something with a big "feel" with very little cash or craft service. This engrossing offering deserves better treatment at the hands of Troma. But we can at least thank them for making it available. One fears that without Troma, this movie would be as dead as the infected in the film. And that truly would be a health crime...a mental health crime.
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