by Judson Cade Pedigo, MJ Contributor
I was never a Bond guy. I never had any use for him and by extension the entire spy genre. I blame it all on Saturday morning cartoons. I’ve mentioned this before but way back when, your entire weekend was based around cartoons. During the weekday the TV was reserved for the news and maybe Cheers but on the weekend it was all yours. That morning magic, however, did not last forever. As soon as the clock struck twelve the good times were over and the dark times began. Golf tournaments, local sports coverage, bass fishing shows, it was a television wasteland for a kid. Sometimes you would get lucky and the afternoon movie would be something wild like Q: The Winged Serpent, The Devil’s Rain, or any chapter of the Planet of the Apes series. Whenever some old Bond flick would come on, I would completely tune out. It might even drive me to play outside. I don’t know why, exactly, but they all seemed so cheeseball. After watching the ABC Saturday Morning lineup, any Bond movie just looked “old” by comparison. All the swagger, the spy gear, the Vegas-style power ballads, just made me roll my eyes. It always seemed to me like a bunch of dudes just talking about what was going to happen rather than actually doing anything. Unlike, say, in a Godzilla movie where yeah, they spent a good half of the movie talking about Godzilla but, goddamn, when the King of the Monsters actually showed up, it more than made up for it. Bond always equaled boring. All that being said, why am I so enamored with the 1973 spy thriller, The Doll Squad?
This movie is silly. I am aware of the fact that this movie is silly. I also choose to take this information and ignore it. When the launch of experimental shuttle, Star Flight XII, is sabotaged by a superimposed explosion (that would look right at home on my Commodore 64), the CIA leaps into action. Immediately, the computer room (back when computers were the size of a room) hums to life, crunching the data to determine the best team for the job. As the magnetic tape reels start spinning, the answer is revealed line by line from the dot matrix printer, “Suggest as most capable…The Doll Squad”. Cue that funky seventies horn section aaaaand credits! The Doll Squad theme is like some mutant mashup of the Bond and Batman 66’ themes with a dash of Superfly (without the soul). It is glorious. Those horns, that sax, that flute solo! At this point, to use the parlance of our times, “I’m all about that Doll Squad lyfe!” My inner hipster immediately wants to pick up the soundtrack on vinyl, preferably an overpriced limited signed and numbered release. It gets me pumped in a way that no Bond cold opening ever could even though this has none of the razzle-dazzle. In a way, it doesn’t need it. It all comes down to the concept. An elite team of women that are called into action to take on the biggest threats to democracy? It all looks good on paper to me! Of course, sometimes a good idea can lose its luster on the journey to the big screen. You know the one about the android with the God complex, driven mad by isolation, who performs insane Dr.Frankenstein-like experiments to create the perfect organism? Yeah, that turned into Alien: Covenant. (Seriously Ridley old boy, give the franchise a rest already.) So how does The Doll Squad fare in bringing its concept to the screen? Terribly. I’m not going to lie, it’s not so good. Not on a technical level. Not on a competent level. Not on any level, really. Then the question is, why do I like this movie so damn much? My mission, should I choose to accept it is to find out why I’d rather watch The Doll Squad for the fifth time than any of the Bond movies for the first?
Let’s face it, Bond is just one guy, and he’s also kind of a creeper. Who would you rather have on your side, one Bond or a whole team of Lady Bonds? Leave that guy to shaking his martini. Let’s just look at a few members of the squad and see how they stack up. Roll call!
Sabrina Kincaid: Leader of the squad. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Assists in recruiting and training squad members and specializes in kicking ass.
Lavelle Sumara: Government trained assassin by day, burlesque dancer by night, Lavelle is the squad’s resident explosives expert. At least I think she is. She’s always going around wiring bombs together. She also sneaks up on a dude and flat out stabs him in the heart. I mean, she could have just knocked him unconscious. That’s cold, Lavelle.
Cat: Known simply as “Cat”, this member of the squad is silent AND deadly. Her civilian identity is a mild-mannered librarian, which couldn’t be more perfect because, in reality, she is a full-time killing machine. She rarely speaks. Instead, she lets violence do the talking. Her language is cuttin’ throats and sniping fools in the face. The most dangerous member of the squad, Cat is a stone-cold killer. Cat is all about that thug life.
Women in the James Bond series seem to fall into two categories 1) women who sleep with James Bond and 2) women who sleep with James Bond and betray James Bond. What a creep. In the world of The Doll Squad, it’s women who are running the show. I’m not saying that this movie is enlightened, but it does seem to resist the urge to make these ladies take their milkshakes to the yard. Sabrina stands toe-to-toe with the men around her and there is never any question why the Dolls are needed. They’re the best and everybody knows it. They take care of their shit. The only time the film stutters a bit is at the end when Sabrina says that she needs a week off, ”to remind myself I’m still a lady” but otherwise it’s never really brought up. There is a little of the “jiggle” factor, not at the level of a Russ Meyer production, but it is there. There is a burlesque dance but its shot like a 3rd-grade spelling bee and the Dolls hang out in their swimsuits a time or two but that’s about it. Look, I’m not thirteen anymore trying to catch the latest Shannon Tweed opus on a scrambled Cinemax channel. I’m not that interested in that kind of thing and neither is the movie. I don’t think it’s an effort of those involved to subvert the genre (Ted V. Mikels also directed Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and The Corpse Grinders), I’m just not sure if it’s that well made. (Apologies to Ted V. Mikels. I love this movie, I really do) It often overlooks plenty of opportunities to even be the least bit sexy. As Cat and fellow squad member Liz White are trying to enter the villain’s compound, they must first get past the guards at the gate. Passing themselves off as rock enthusiasts on a rock hunt, the pair use their feminine wiles to lure the witless men into a trap. Cat distracts the guards by offering them…cookies? Yep, cookies. Here is the line, “Oh look here group, cookies. Would you fellas like to share some cookies?” There is no wink, wink, nudge, nudge, only cookies. She leads the guards away to literally eat cookies. It’s all just a trick to get them to drink some vodka laced with exploding powder but still, cookies?!? A couple of swigs later and these guys go up like a state trooper checking the trunk of a Chevy Malibu. Still…cookies? That was their move. Cookies. If it was me I’d put a little more emphasis on the “cookies”. It’s hard to get across in print but I’m saying it out loud and I’m saying “cookies” real sexy. “Would you fellas, like to share some…cookies?” It’s really hard to make cookie sound sexy but I’m totes pulling it off. You can call me and I’ll give you a line reading. You should see what I’m doing with my hands. Too hot. This isn’t about me, this is about the Doll Squad and they don’t seem all that interested in sex. These girls are all about business. The business of killin’, stabbin’, and karate choppin’. Let’s just say business is booming for the women of The Doll Squad.
Sure the Bond series might have done a lot of this spy stuff first, but that doesn’t mean that The Doll Squad can’t do it again. Most of the plot seems to be cherry-picked from what we associate with the Bond style. The villain with the world domination plans and secret island stronghold? He’s in here. Gizmos and gadgets? The aforementioned exploding powder and a lighter that turns into a blowtorch. Creepy henchmen? At least three or four. There is even an over the top Vegas style power ballad during the closing credits. The only thing missing here is the Bond budget. I wish I could say that what The Doll Squad lacks in budget is made up for with inventive camera work, great acting and an intricate plot but that’s not exactly the case either. Most everything is filmed in a medium shot with little to no coverage. So you’ll have a scene with people standing around a desk talking for a few minutes that feels like it takes a few days to watch. This movie also has some of the dodgiest day for night scenes I’ve ever come across. The sky goes from “pitch black” to “light blue” and “obviously morning” in a matter of minutes. They also must have saved money from the explosives budget by not actually blowing anything up. It’s all superimposed explosions and bright red blobs. Eh, works for me. It’s all charming in its way. In fact, it’s hard to tell, sometimes, if this thing wants to be a legit spy movie or if it’s having fun with the conventions of the genre. Take the big bad for example. His move is to unleash an army of rats infected with the bubonic plague upon all four corners of the world. Civilization will topple while he makes a mint selling the antidote to the world’s governments. (I quick scanned the Wikipedia page for bubonic plague and I don’t think that’s how bubonic plague works but whatevs.) As he unveils his plan to a packed room of evil agents from around the globe, one agent, in particular, has a few questions,
“What about our families, they too will be inoculated?”
“You will be given enough serum for your families.”
“And our friends?”
”Sir, in this business, we have no friends. If you think otherwise you had best leave now.”
“No, no, no, I didn’t mean…I was simply speaking for others who might have a friend or two. I myself of course have none.”
This really cracked me up. I kept imagining this tough guy thinking about how he was going to break the news to his best friend that he was going to die from the bubonic plague. (I will miss you, Brian.) See, that was a good moment. That’s all you need in a movie sometimes, just a few good moments. The last thirty minutes of this movie is just one big good moment to me. It’s like they watched a shoot-out from a Bond flick and went “more of this, less of everything else.” It turns in to scene after scene of the Doll Squad running around, shooting guards and superimposing explosions on everything. That Doll Squad theme I mentioned, I hope you like it because it plays basically the entire movie. Anytime the dolls are onscreen, it plays. Whether shooting a bazooka, wiring explosives or just walking across the street, the music plays and plays and plays. That’s okay with me because I happen to like it. I guess that’s it. When it comes down to it, I just like this movie. There is something really satisfying about seeing a bunch of women running around flat out shooting dudes in the face to the beat of a funky seventies score. It gets me pumped up. I don’t need much. You can retire that tux Bond, what we want to see are big hair and go-go boots saving the day. When it comes to spy games, make mine The Doll Squad.