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Chameleon 1.0.1:

An Algebraic Overview

This trilogy of movies originally started with UPN in 1998, and had the clear aim of trying to generate enough interest for an ongoing show. As yet, that hasn't materialised (it was most recently considered after part 3, according to Sci Fi Wire), but the series has been going strong anyway.

The setting is the near-future, when corporations have taken over, and even the FBI is now the Incorporated Bureau of Investigations. The star is Bobbie Phillips, who plays Kam, a creation of the IBI. She was made as a special agent, with mostly human DNA, but also traces of cougar, falcon and chameleon. This gives her an interesting power: she can make her skin match her surroundings almost perfectly. Fortunately - or not - this skill is also possessed by her clothes, which is a bit of a plot clunker, designed to avoid both the traditional Invisible Man-styled floating shirts, and gratuitous nudity.

It does beg the question: if you have material that can do this, why go to all the bother of breeding a person that can do it? Wouldn't it be easier (and more fun for the audience!) to just give them a nice Seven-of-Nineish catsuit? The effect is nicely realised, even if it's an ability only used at moments essential to the plot - when she mounts her final assault on the villain's lair, it would be sensible to do so invisibly, but that would make for duller viewing.

Shot in Queensland, Australia, these may not be the most original pieces of work that you'll ever see, but they are certainly a cut above most TV movies and deserve a better fate than late-night reruns on the Sci-Fi channel (which is where I first accidentally stumbled across them). Hence this primer, which will hopefully encourage mathematicians and others to seek them out.

The Russian video sleeves

Chameleon
Dir: Stuart Cooper.
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Eric Lloyd, John Adam, Jerome Ehlers

In mathematical terms, an approximation to Chameleon can be expressed by the following formula:
             (Leon / Blade Runner)2 * Terminator 2 + (0.2 * Predator)
To go step by step through the equation:

There: that's the essential elements covered. This is doing it a slight disservice, since it does have some genuine original ideas, but there is an awful lot which is blatantly lifted from elsewhere. However, credit must be given for stealing from excellent sources, and enough of those involved go at their work with sufficient enthusiasm and energy to make you forget its less than groundbreaking setting and storyline.

The plot revolves around a hacked computer credit chip which is the equivalent of a bottomless bank account: just before the inventor is slain, he passes it on to his son, and when Kam is ordered to kill him and recover the chip, she rebels and rescues him. She heads off to the countryside to escape, where she links up with a group living outside the urban world where the vast majority of the population now reside (nicely, the countryside has become almost a myth to townsfolk). There, she must fend off the bounty-hunter sent to track her down, as well as coming to terms with the uncertain human feelings she is steadily feeling, before returning for the inevitable showdown with her creator.

Bobbie Phillips delivers an excellent performance as Kam. In films like this, the balance is important; it's easy for the heroine to fall into being unsympathetic at one end, or weak at the other, but that's not the case here. Kam comes across with an almost childlike innocence in some ways, but is perfectly happy with using her sexuality for gain, at one point whoring herself in exchange for gas. It's a nice contradiction that helps to provide depth to what could be just a stock character. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast don't work as well; Eric Lloyd as the child is particularly irritating, and the villain lacks anything to make you hate him with the necessary intensity. [Returning to the inspirations above, he should take lessons from Gary Oldman or Rutger Hauer]

The action here seems restrained; a little gunplay and some minor martial arts, but nothing particularly memorable. The sexual scenes make the made-for-TV origins painfully clear, with sheets that appear to be velcro'd to Phillips' breasts, when she doesn't have her elbows elegantly positioned in front of them. Still, there's enough here in the central character to make me want to see more...and lo, what's this coming along?

Chameleon 2: Death Match
Dir: Craig R.Baxley
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Don Battee, Casey Siemaszko, Tasha Smith

Unlike most mathematics, which tends to increase in complexity the more you get into it, the second part of the series has a very simple equation:
             (Die Hard * 2/3) + (Lethal Weapon / 6)
Disappointingly, study of the above shows that it manages to be significantly less than any of its component parts. Again, we have theft from well-regarded sources, but here, there is almost no originality on view. Let's see...

  1. Terrorists take over a high-rise building...
  2. ...as a decoy operation for their actual goal.
  3. The hero(ine) must take them on single-handed...
  4. ...save for occasional communications with the black cop running things outside...
  5. ...while exchanging taunts with their leader via a walkie-talkie.

The plagiarism is more focused too, ripping off highly specific elements, such as the terrorist leader accepting a hostage's offer of help before killing him, and even the style - witness the bad guy who plummets to his doom from a window, in a shower of broken glass, limbs flailing wildly. It's shot from above in exactly the same way as Die Hard, and was the point at which I began to yearn feverishly to watch John McTiernan's greatly superior effort. [Though admittedly, it's also greatly superior to almost all action movies, save Aliens]

You get a lot less sex than in the first part; in fact, none to speak of. There's not even any sexual tension between Kam and her new partner, Booker (Siemaszko), who just engage in the kind of bickering familiar to anyone who has seen a buddy-cop film. Oddly, there is absolutely no mention of the kid who had bonded so firmly to Kam - by the end of part one, she could even say the F-word to him. That's "family", in case you're wondering. I should perhaps stress that this is merely an observation, rather than a complaint.

Booker and Kam are one team sent into the hijacked tower-block to find out what's going on and solve the problem. The next hour goes almost exactly as you'd expect, with the terrorists progressing towards their goal, and Kam trying to stop them. Even more than previously, she does seem to keep forgetting to use her power - in such hostile surroundings, I'd have it on all the time. There may be some neurological or biochemical reason for this: it'd have been nice if they'd actually bothered to mention it though.

There's one sequence with Kam scurrying, lightning-fast, up a ventilation shaft (right) and a rather good brawl involving her that made me sit up and pay attention, offering hope for the rest of the movie. It's a bit of a red herring. The last twenty minutes finally leave slavishly cloning Bruce Willis, with the villain not being who you'd expect (though if you think about who played the bad guys in the Die Hard trilogy, it's not difficult to work out). One good twist at the end is Kam recovering the "loot" and using it for her own ends, which extends her nicely amoral attitude. There's also a nod to Kam's not-entirely human origins, and how they affect her emotions, which would be a good avenue for future exploration.

But overall, this is a poor follow-up. You shouldn't try to remake classics, unless you can bring something new to the party, and while Phillips is certainly no worse an actor than Bruce Willis, it's not enough to stop this seeming a lame copy.

Chameleon 3: Dark Angel
Dir: John Lafia
Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Teal Redmann, Alex Kuzelicki, Doug Penty

Part three is a return to form, despite a title which might now seem suspiciously unoriginal, at first glance on the video shelves. But it actually predates James Cameron's series, leaving his genetically-altered, motorcycle-riding loner firmly in the position of late-comer. The mathematics for this one are harder to define, since the ideas on view are...well, if in light of the first two movies, I'm reluctant to claim originality, they are at least taken from less obvious sources. There is thus an "X" factor to take in account here, where X may or may not be genuine inventiveness.
        (Chameleon / Kung-fu movies) + (Dirty Harry / 6)2 + Factor X

Note the semi-recursive nature of the formula, with one major element from the first film being rehashed, namely Kam's acquisition of a child into her protective custody. Note also the plot inversion of many a kung-fu movie - these may be summarised as, "you killed my brother and you must pay!", while here, it's "you are my brother and you must pay!". Yes, the chief threat here comes from Cain, another DNA-hybrid: wolf, bat, etc. though I'm unaware of any of them having the startling regenerative powers he has. Maybe the bat was part vampire, in which case Kam could always try decapitation and stuffing a holy wafer in his mouth, for nothing else - even impalement with a pipe - is a long-term solution. Time to call in Buffy, perhaps.

A bunch of physicists, including teenage prodigy Tess (Teal Redmann - who, Chris points out, looks like a young Renee Zellwegger), are working on a sample of "dark matter", when rudely interrupted by Cain. He makes off with it at the behest of his master (bald head, sneer and clearly planning towards Being John Malkovich) for the usual mercenary gain purposes. Unfortunately, the dark matter is unstable and Tess has to convince Kam that in 48 hours, the planet will be gurgling down a black hole like leftover soap-suds. So far, so ho-hum, but the only way to stop it is by exploding an electromagnetic pulse bomb - and the only person to have one powerful enough is a wheelchair-bound terrorist called The Mongoose. Will they find him in time?

I imagine no-one genuinely doubts the answer, but this adds a whole new plot twist, especially as the last time the Mongoose activated his weapon, its impact was pretty heavy. What happens when it's used here is never really shown, and there is some scientific handwaving about the black hole absorbing all the energy, but it would be gratifying to think that it became necessary to destroy the city in order to save it. Not least because Cameron's Dark Angel starts with a very similar premise.

Even if the heroine's chameleon-like powers have been all but forgotten, this is the best entry in the series, with some great action, notably Kam's single-handed demolition of the Mongoose's gang - I saw this just after coming back from Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon, and it's a battle which stands up well in comparison. Her ruthless brutality is also surprising and you can only sympathise with her handlers, futilely trying to keep her in check. She does what she want, when she wants, to whom she wants, and can only be applauded for it. The child actor here is also a great deal less annoying than first time around, an obvious relief to the viewer.

There, for the moment, the series rests. What lies in the future is hard to tell, but given the ongoing success of shows like Buffy, Xena and La Femme Nikita, it'd be a foolish man who would write off the chances of Chameleon finally making it onto the small screen.
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