Review: Overkill (1987)

Overkill

Directed by Ulli Lommel
Starring Steve Rally, John Nishio, Laura Burkett

Ulli Lommel is a human being, at least according to photographs taken of him. He has the whole face thing – the eyes and mouth and nose – and he wears clothing, like most of us humans do. I assume that he identifies as a person and carries some kind of identification that classifies him as a citizen of some country somewhere. By all accounts, Ulli Lommel is a human being who has spent his entire life in the presence of other human beings.

I find this hard to believe.

Overkill is a tragic attempt to imitate filmmaking that never once feels like it was conceived by a human brain. Plot elements are stolen wholesale from other films and placed in a completely alien context in a story that never understands why its characters do what they do, only that they must do them because other movies said so. The camera is used in a fundamental, artless way: The actors must say lines in front of it, but the emotion of said lines is never emphasized or understood; the camera’s position is completely arbitrary – its only necessity is that it is turned on and pointed the right way. Lights are sometimes used so that images may be picked up on film, but they are never manipulated to set a mood or create atmosphere. Ulli Lommel understands that movies are constructed with events and discussion, but he has no sense of the in-between moments, the pauses and the silent exchanges between actors. Establishing shots are done away with entirely. Where are we? Who knows?

In Overkill, a scene begins and an actor will emotionlessly recall a line from the screenplay. Sometimes another actor will emotionlessly respond. After a hard edit – no fadeouts, no transitions, no clear sign that the subject is being changed – another scene begins, sometimes set a few days or weeks later. There is no way to tell. Someone gets shot in a parked car. A woman eats a banana. Two people drive somewhere, stop, and then drive back. Someone drinks a beer. Someone else sits in a sauna. A cop gets shot and falls into a pool. An ear is removed with a samurai sword.

The plot is insignificant. Steve Rally (a former Playgirl model) is LAPD detective Mickey Delano. His partner is killed by members of a Japanese organized crime syndicate. You can guess what happens next.

When Akashi, a Tokyo cop, rolls into town, Delano asks, “Did you come over here to avenge the deaths of your relatives?” Akashi replies: “I came here for the funeral.” This isn’t presented as a joke. The actors deliver every line in monotone, creating characters who don’t appear to understand human emotion and react to everything, even the deaths of loved ones, with dead-eyed indifference. Watching Overkill is like looking into a black hole: Ignorance, misunderstanding, and utter bewilderment can each be found in every facet of the filmmaking process.

Lummel, who co-wrote the screenplay, also lacks any comprehension of the fundamentals of character development. Instead of giving Delano’s partner, Steiner, personal motivations or character flaws, Lummel decides that Steiner should simply carry playing cards around with him at all times. When Steiner dies, playing cards fly out of his pocket, reminding us that Steiner liked playing cards. This doesn’t induce sympathy – it only reminds us that the guy was obsessed with playing cards. That’s his personality. Cards.

Akashi delivers a monologue late in the film:

“The day ends in quiet meditation, imagining one’s final hour and the various ways of dying: By bow and arrow … gun … spear … cut down by a sword … swallowed up by the sea … jumping into a fire … being struck by lightning … crushed by an earthquake … falling off a cliff … sudden death!”

Is this a speech about the dangers being faced by our protagonist? Or is it about ephemerality? Is Akashi speaking to the brief moment we have as living, breathing beings, searching for peace of mind in a violent, chaotic world?

No. They are only words and phrases Ulli Lommel has heard in his time on earth, strung together by an amateur actor in an amateur movie, digitally preserved by an online streaming service, waiting desperately for a real human being to decipher them.

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