Cinematic villains love to cackle, and few bad guys cackle more or better than those from Hong Kong genre cinema and English-speaking exploitation cinema. Show me a martial arts film made anywhere from the Sixties up to about the year 2000 that doesn’t have one (usually either followed by or while simultaneously stroking a ludicrously long, stringy beard), and I’ll show you a cigar box full of four-leaf clovers. American action films typically have a gang of lowbrow guttersnipes who all think things like rape and murder are the funniest things in the world. I can’t tell you where this tradition started, but I know that it swiftly became a staple/cliché that carries through to today. The idea is that the villains have a sense of superiority, and their haughty laughter shows this to their enemies and victims. Likewise, it’s meant to show the audience that these characters are vile. The things they find uproariously hilarious are things a normal human being finds odious and tragic. It also removes the films further away from reality, because these guys are so heightened in their reactions to everything, they become cartoonish. Take Edward Victor’s Alley Cat, for example. The iniquitous Bill/Scarface (Michael Wayne, an actor who only appeared in this one film but could very easily have been the Anthony James of films that only had $1.22 to spend on casting) brays when he thinks of what he’s going to do to our heroine Billie (Karin Mani), and his underlings follow along, because being a scumbag is fun (conversely, this is also meant to be menacing for the same exact reasons).
Billie chases a couple of thugs away from her car with her Karate skills (and it should be said that either Mani actually knows martial arts or the stunt-doubling is impressive, maybe both), but their boss Scarface decides to teach her a lesson by stabbing Billie’s grandmother. Billie decides to take this rather personally.
Alley Cat is a standard revenge film in every way, and that includes its philosophy of disproportionate responses. Billie kicks the stuffing out of Tom (Tim Cutt) and Mickey, who run off crying to Scarface. To show her who’s boss, these jerks follow Billie’s grandparents and assault them, leading to Grandma Clark being comatose and, eventually, dead. The average man might have just forgotten about having their ass whipped by a woman, been thankful they didn’t wind up in the pokey, and gone about their felonious business elsewhere. Not these guys. Every affront must be met with five times the violence and viciousness. Billie, however, is just like them. Yes, she starts off defending her property and family or helping a stranger, but she quickly discovers that the adage about if you can’t beat them, join them, holds true when it comes to thugs. Inevitably, she does to the bad guys what they tried to do to her, tracking them down and killing them (I assume; there’s only one definitive onscreen death). Yet, we side with her because we repeatedly see her attacked (honestly, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t give up jogging at night if they were assaulted even half as much as Billie is) for no real reason. She goes from defensive to offensive, but morally, she’s correct. The justice system we rely on also lives up to the rule of disproportionate responses. After Billie rescues a woman from a rape using a handgun, she is arrested for a variety of crimes which she did violate, but that any decent cop would let slide, all things considered. The judge who presides over every single case that Billie is involved in chucks her in jail for contempt of court (where she makes a few friends for life).
This leads to the idea of misogyny that pervades the film. Every man in the film either hates women or is ineffective (read: a pantywaist). All the men on the street want to have sex with every woman they see (willingly or not). Billie is chased and set upon multiple times in the park, and the men who do this have nothing but sex and violence on their minds. Scarface’s girlfriend is treated like the piece of meat she is. He calls her “Miss Blowjob,” and the two are not above throwing things at each other. He puts her down and reminds her constantly that she’s nothing but a warm hole. She puts up with it likely because she’s been beaten down and is now simply inured to the fact that this is the way of things. Boyle (Jon Greene), a beat cop, is the one who gives Billie a hard time about her need to carry a gun when she goes out at night. He delights in handcuffing her and charging her with every single thing he can. Boyle also has a hooker (Britt Helfer, whom you likely remember from Raw Force or the soap opera Loving, but, either way, is physically impressive, just to play my own pig card for a moment) he bangs while on duty (and, we can infer, without paying for her services). The single male who isn’t a complete swine is Johnny, the cop Billie meets cute with at the hospital and who quickly becomes her boyfriend. At first, Johnny is the paragon of virtue, standing up for the little guy and attempting to keep Billie out of danger while trying to bring the bad guys to justice by the book. even he has a level of sexism about him, trying to show Billie how to do Karate without knowing she’s working on her black belt. What Johnny finds out, however, much like Billie did just slower, is that to get justice one must get one’s hands very dirty. You can’t clean up a Jell-O wrestler without getting some on you, so to speak. As in all movies of this stripe, the system is moribund, if not five weeks gone, allowing the misogyny perpetrated on the streets to corrupt the decency it’s supposed to stand for. The choice left for victims is surrender or vigilantism.
Alley Cat has some good things going for it. Being an exploitation film, it is loaded with beautiful women who don’t mind doffing their clothes onscreen. There are action scenes every few minutes. There is a layer of grime all over it; you can almost feel the grit on the characters and smell their b.o. What it gets wrong is that it is unfocused. Did we need the lengthy sequence of Billie in prison? Did we need the lengthy sequence of Johnny tormenting the Helfer character for information? Did we need the random jogging assault attempts that have nothing to do with the main story? No, to all. Yes, they each satisfy for this type of film, but they are all extraneous. You could argue that they are necessary as illustrations of systematic misogyny, but they distract from the main narrative. Maybe that’s the point? Maybe the filmmakers wanted to do a more holistic approach to a Woman’s Revenge film? It’s possible. But, at eighty-two minutes, the tangents drag down the pacing, and they made me think that the filmmakers simply didn’t have enough story to fill out that time frame. Fair enough, because the distractions do what distractions are supposed to do. But they also remind the viewer that time is dragging by.
MVT: Mani can keep a movie together and handle physical action, and, with a better script and some better direction, I believe she could have been a genre luminary.
Make or Break: The finale drops what scant subtleties the film had and digs into its genre trappings full bore while displaying exactly what Billie has become.