Friday 26 May 2017

Search/Destroy: Strontium Dog (Fan Film Review)

Ask anyone about 2000AD and often you'll get the answer of "Oh, the Judge Dredd comic, right?" Well, that's at least partially correct, Dredd is in it, but that's only one of a multitude of classics across several universes. Many characters have risen and fallen, sagas began and some ended, but in that time there are only three which I personally consider to be a holy trinity of sorts: Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Strontium DogThe last of these is the subject for today where at long last the tale of Johnny Alpha has been adapted to film. 

For those not in the know, Strontium Dog was effectively the dark British take on the X-Men, in the same way Blake's 7 seemed to oppose Star Trek. Mutants emerged throughout the human population during a freak accident and have been slowly becoming more prominent over time, which led to a brief but bloody civil war. While the mutants "won" and achieved their rights, many laws marginalized opportunities for them, forcing many former freedom fighters to become bounty hunters to make a living. It's a hard, bitter and dangerous life, and one which is becoming all the worse each day. Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer accept a job to look into several recent SD Agent murders in the Merstasis System, and stumble upon a far bigger plot at work...

While it might not have the budget of Dredd or the effects to match the Avengers, this is a by-fans-for-fans creation which nevertheless manages to get damn near everything right.

The Good:

As a story with a limited budget and scope, Search/Destroy is visibly going the full mile to fit anything which will please fans into its short run time without becoming dangerously over ambitious. As a result, what you have is a relatively simple start to a story, with a decent twist, lots of gunplay and plenty of opportunities to show off the dark if somewhat zany parts of the setting. While the mission itself is certainly unusual, like the aforementioned Dredd it aims largely for a day in the life look into how these agents operate. We're given a look into how they're treated, how they choose their missions, how they claim rewards and the many wonderful toys Alpha in particular brings into battle.

While barely twenty minutes long, Search/Destroy manages to fit this in via some very tight editing, well executed montages and fleeting scenes. The creators knew that fans were in this to see some gunplay at work, but that didn't stop them from taking their time to set up a few pleasing moments, from Alpha and Wulf gathering info to a glimpse into the Doghouse itself. This builds up towards the action over diving headlong into it, while at the same time streamlining enough of the Easter Eggs and nods to the comic to prevent them from becoming intrusive. After all, Middenface McNulty is someone who would only be recognised by ardent fans, but by including him in a characteristically mouthy fan-pleasing cameo of hunters listening for bounties is welcome but it doesn't overshadow the plot. Why is this important exactly? Because it shows that the film was willing to bank on fans getting a kick out of these moments, but it didn't simply slave itself to them. This could have easily become just a series of shout outs to the bigger stories, but there was enough restraint on hand to keep it focused upon the here and now.

The actual aesthetic and tone of the film was remarkably well handled as well, especially given the steep divide between the more humourous older arcs and the modern comics. While it does veer towards the grimier side of things, the aesthetic works in its favour, and it makes the designs first penned by Carlos Ezquerra stand out all the more. Especially the grim joke which is the Smiling Chuckwalla, which was a welcome use of a classically disturbing monster. Alpha's distinctive helmet, the jet bikes used and even the costumes present with the side characters are all utterly spot on, and while the odd prop can seem off - notably Wulf's non-metallic hammer - execution, cinematography and editing overcome this. 

Equally, the tight nature of the story allows for only a few character driven moments, but the few it gets are brilliantly worked into the tale. There's at least one major memorable scene for every character involved, from Alpha's debriefing as he hands over what's left of his bounty, to Wulf's merry one-liners later on, and effectively everything involving the major villain. There's enough of a balance here between solid writing and acting to make it leave an impact, and to do their characters justice. Alpha, for example, is taciturn, blunt and tactically pragmatic, but for all his ruthlessness there's enough here to reflect upon his personal code and surprising morality. 

Still, many of you are probably wondering about the action. This is a fan film so the budget is always going to be stretched tight, and Strontium Dog was always renowned for taking a high tech approach to combat. Well, you'll be happy to know that it gets this aspect absolutely right. The tone is set early on when a criminal uses a waist-mounded spring-loaded cannon to shoot a man in the chest while holding his hands up, and it only gets crazier from there. The film finds any opportunity it can to call upon any of the famous weapons and powers from the comics, with Alpha's sight, the electro-nux, time bombs (no, not that kind) and the happy stick all showing up at several points. The film gives brief moments for each to shine, and it's enough for them to offer up copious amounts of satisfying carnage before moving onto the next big weapon.

The scale of the action itself is remarkable for a production of this budget, with a multi-man brawl, Western style showdown and even a bunker assault all taking place one after the next. Each offers a different aspect of the fights from the comics, and just when you think things might be starting to calm down they will find a way to add a new threat to keep things fresh. This sort of approach ensures that Search/Destroy might be extremely short, but it is an absolute Marvel to any fan who ever hungered to see a live action adaptation of these tales.

Still, not everything here is perfect, and it would be amiss not to bring up a few failings.

The Bad:

As with their previous work on Judge Minty, the effects are a somewhat mixed bag. While the practical creations, landscapes and even a few of the creatures hold up well, some of the CGI looks unfortunately dated in several key places. This is to be expected with any fan film, and we have seen much worse over the years, but a few points such as the bizarrely low resolution electro effects of energy weapons stand out like a sore thumb against the infinitely better elements. This is only worth mentioning as the film does little to really hide of work around a few of the more problematic qualities, and even draws attention to them at a few points. As a result, you might be hooked for several minutes, only to have your sense of immersion severely hampered by what is effectively only a small part of a much bigger scene.

The editing also proves to be sadly troubling during a few moments of melee combat, as it suffers from more than a few extremely obvious cuts away from blows. While there are plenty of money shots to make up for this as the fight pans out, it's not hard to remember just why so many fan productions tend to avoid close combat while watching this. It's difficult to execute on a tight budget, and the most entertaining moments largely stem from the finishing blows or use of the setting's more original weapons.

Finally, certain parts in establishing the relationship between Wulf and Alpha seem forced. True, one is a former freedom fighter outcast from society due to his genetic differences while the other is a time displaced Viking raider (yes, really), but it seems that more could have been done to set up their comradery. The montage we get of them waiting on a passenger ship has quite a few fun moments and it does reflect the surprising monotony of waiting between missions, but aside from a very brief conversation there's little here which really works in its favour. Call it a pointless criticism if you want as this was meant for fans, but after Judge Minty established such an effective character arc, this is surprisingly lacking.

The Verdict:

Even taking into account the film's few failings, Search/Destroy is nevertheless a stunning success and a testament to the skills of all involved. Even if you're not an established fan of 2000AD's creations, this is still worth watching for the sheer entertainment factor and to see just how colourful, creative and grim yet bizarre the Strontium Dog setting can be. Plus, hey. name another twenty minute film where you get to see a fascist leader eaten alive, several henchmen kicked into orbit and a Viking punching a grenade down an alien's throat.

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