Very recently, I previewed an upcoming Web series, the Swords of Insurgency. The trailer blew me away, a high octane martial arts thriller, miles away from any other independent production I have seen in my ventures in the world of indie film-making. Massive prison complexes, dozens of extras on horseback and what looked like fights straight from big budget movies. The director sent me the pilot episode a month in advance, so I was able to get a sneak peek as to what the finished product would look like.
While I complimented the location and ways the production team worked their way around a budget, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of movie-making, those things are just the dressing for the main course. It doesn’t really matter how good your production values are if the centre of the story or the talent behind the project aren’t up to scratch. For example, even if director Michael Neal assembled some great martial artists, weapon props and horses for the fight scenes, that would matter very little if the fight choreography or the writing wasn’t there. I am pleased to say that Neal’s direction is just as keen as his equipment suggests. The cinematography of Swords of Insurgency is delightful. Protagonist Abi emerges from an escape route and the camera lingers on the ruined building behind her, an impressive spectacle that we don’t mind slowing the action down to linger on. Neal is a fan of some long tracking shots and if you don’t mind him indulging in them, then you have to admire the precision behind them. My favourite frame of the episode was that moment when the masked guards realise that Abi has escaped. They get the call through on the radio and rush off to the prison complex. All but one – that guard breaks for a run in the opposite direction! It is Abi. It is such a clever use of angle, as the camera is able to hold for a prolonged sequence where our hero runs to freedom. You feel the atmosphere and tension pumping through the entire sequence, a terrific soundtrack really accentuating the drama of the escape. If there are more moments like these, the other episodes should be just as good as the pilot.
Especially with the series’ villains. While the two female leads suffer for the time being from looking a little too alike (this should stop becoming a problem, when we have come to know them for a few episodes), the three bad guys at the centre of this tale are terrifically fun to spend time with. Jarod Kearney’s Droll cuts a pathetically dangerous figure, the son of a powerful warlord, infatuated with Abi, their principal prisoner. Most of the episode sees him obsessively trying to win his prisoner over. Kearney plays it intense, creating a character that we can all get behind to hate. It is also clear that he is the volatile link in the bad guy’s plans, which should make for some interesting character dynamics later on in the series. As for his father, he is just as good a villain. Erik Bernard Johnson has few lines, but he doesn’t need them, using his terrifying stage presence to get across the character. Emperor Taneg is an unpredictable force to be reckoned with, his eyes flashing murderously. We are never sure if he is going to kill or befriend the henchman in front of him. It keeps the bad guys’ scenes dripping with intrigue, as we wait for a bomb to explode, not sure whether it will be from the father or the son. Perhaps my favourite bad guy is the Warden, however. So far, Mike McCullin hasn’t particularly shown us who this mysterious bodyguard is. He is also a man of few words, cutting through scenes in a billowing black cloak with the physique of ‘the character to watch out for’. There is something about McCullin’s composure and eye expressions that pulls the audience in. McCullin hints at a tragic back-story, perhaps even some sympathetic character traits to uncover in the future. However, because there is little time for the pilot to explore each character, we are left with McCullin’s acting to make us bond with the Warden. And I, for one, totally did, eagerly awaiting when the character will get a chance to properly spring into action. While we haven’t had time to explore the good guys, our main experience with them being some fight scenes, the baddies are definitely holding the audience’s attention, until Neal gets time to properly introduce us to the leads.
If I was to find a single criticism, it would be a certain absence of exposition. I was lucky enough to read into the series beforehand, as a part of my research, so I know the backstory of this apocalypse and the character dynamics. However, during the actual episode, few of the details I read about were shared. We are dumped into this prison complex, we hear mutters about a ‘resistance’ and the name of the Emperor, but we aren’t given too much context for anything that is happening. While I knew about the economic downturn that caused this situation to come about, I cannot help but worry that a future generation of fans would be totally lost, when first discovering Swords of Insurgency. After all, a web series cannot just cater to the current fan-base, but must assume that somewhere in the future, a new audience will stumble across their work. I worry that they will be confused as to what is going on. Of course, it is early to criticise Neal here, because perhaps the second episode will be filled with more information and he is using this pilot as a means of drawing the crowds in. A palette of tones and atmosphere if you will. We bond with the characters, understand the relationships and if anything, the lack of information as to what the world has become, as well as the appearance of some ‘creatures’ in the final scenes, makes us even more desperate to get our hands on the next episode.
Anyway, story is all well and good, but most of us are here for the fights. And yes, I can confirm that they are good. Independent productions rarely succeed with action, but this is where Neal has the upper hand, coming from a background of martial arts, as well as having a cast that know how to throw a punch or two. Right from the first punch-up, we know we are onto something good. Rebecca Hausman explodes with intense action, clearly expressing the fatigue and desperation of the character, but just when you think she cannot take any more abuse, she erupts into a whirlwind of action. Some of the combos are great fun to watch and any marital arts enthusiast will not be disappointed in seeing this female lead take on some juicy fight scenes. And the best bit… we cannot escape the sensation that this is just a toe in the water. I am sure that we have barely scratched the surface of what this show is capable of and this makes that wait all the more excruciating. Swords of Insurgency is shaping up to be just as good as it sounded like it was going to be.