On August 31st, the same day that Legend of the Red Reaper has its world premiere at the Central Florida Film Festival, I will be wheeling through Southern Illinois in memory of 17-year-old Jessica Evans, an intelligent and talented and caring and beautiful young girl who was murdered along with her boyfriend while out camping over Labor Day weekend in 2012.
While watching Legend of the Red Reaper, I couldn't help but think of "Jessi," a remarkable young woman full of life and love whose life was cut far too short because of alcohol-fueled rage, cowardice, and impulsivity for which there can be no justification. Aella (Cardinal) is the embodiment of the kind of superhero this world truly needs, an empowered woman with strength and beauty and power and sacrifice and a willingness to do everything within her power to avenge those who have innocently been hurt and to protect others from ever getting hurt.
Every frame of this six-year in the making film screams out passion - passion for life, passion for love, passion for justice, and passion for a world both deeply intimate and universal in its presentation.
Cardinal, the writer/director and lead actress in the film, chatted with The Independent Critic a good 3-4 years ago when Legend of the Red Reaper was in process but in some ways still more a dream than a reality. Even then, it was abundantly clear that Legend of the Red Reaper represented a universal truth which Cardinal fully intended to claim for herself and those for whom she cares about. Amidst the film's fierce yet convincing fight scenes and ample moments of comic book-tinged blood and angst, there is a mighty thread of love and hope and commitment that not only flows through the film but breathes life into it.
Just prior to its world premiere, Legend of the Red Reaper has garnered some deserved attention after word leaked out that Legendary Pictures had turned down the film.
This in itself, of course, is not a huge deal. Films are, after all, turned down every day and often for the flimsiest of reasons. In a documented e-mail the fine folks over at The Mary Sue reported that the Legendary rep cited a confusing story, lack of a big star/director, and an "oversaturation of fantasy." Then, the kicker. They didn't think America was quite ready for another female action hero after the failure of Sucker Punch.
There may be some truth to the idea that Cardinal's commitment to a weaving together of action/fantasy, comic book elements, a medieval aura, and an unabashedly feminist message could be an interesting sell to the American public.
So, realistically, The Weinstein Company is probably the way to go.
The film centers around Cardinal's Aella, a half-human/half-demon creature known as one of the Reapers, the guardians of humanity whose existence is both fierce and sacred. Already prone to fits of rage, Aella's particularly traumatic childhood has left her even more vulnerable to an imbalance. As a child, Aella was given away by her mother The Teller Witch (Eliza Swenson) to Ganesh (Ray Eddy) in exchange for a vial of his blood that would grant her eternal youth. Despite her greatest efforts, Aella is unable to erase the memories of this betrayal and Ganesh's slaughtering of her entire village. Seen as wreckless with her rage, Aella is managed by her master, Kreios (Cal Simmons). She also longs for the heart of Eris (David Mackey), though since he is full human she knows this is not to be and he is pledged to Indira (Christina Daoust). When she is led into an ambush by an ally of Ganesh (James Michael Gibson), she's left for dead only to be rescued by, of all people, her mother. Suddenly, long held life mysteries become clearer as does the mission upon which she must embark for herself and for her people.
One need only observe Tara Cardinal's kick-ass yet emotionally resonant performance as Aella to fully realize just how much of a passion project this is for the actress. Having established a solid name for herself in indie action, horror and even the B-movie realm, Cardinal has seemingly leveraged everything she is, everything she has, and everyone she knows to make sure that Legend of the Red Reaper became the film she envisioned.
While Cardinal has always been known as a talented action star/actress (trust me, that's rare!), as Aella she has a groundedness that makes her performance transcendent to behold. She's strong yet vulnerable. She's vengeful yet loving. She's powerful yet gentle.
In other words, she's a true superhero.
Cardinal's supporting cast is strong as well and they're all clearly on the same page as Cardinal in terms of weaving together the film's mythical elements into an almost comic book/graphic novel style structure. David Mackey, as Eris, exhibits a nice chemistry with Cardinal while Christina Daoust, Ray Eddy, Christian Boeving, and Cal Simmons really shine in supporting roles.
One good sign of a clear cinematic vision is when dialogue meets acting meets production design meets original music and they all blend themselves together into one cohesive unit. Such is the case with Legend of the Red Reaper, with production quality far better than one usually expects from a modestly budgeted indie project.
Perhaps the highest compliment one can give to Legend of the Red Reaper is that with the film Cardinal has accomplished her core vision of telling an epic, action-packed tale with a message that is emotionally resonant, empowering, exhilarating, and sure to please the indie fest circuit that is so often thirsting for uniquely told action/fantasy stories devoid of the usual cliche's and exploitative scenery. While the action is plentiful in this film, it empowers rather than exploits. Cardinal, who does her own stunts including swordplay for the film, is a convincing action star not because she gives off this Russian dominatrix vibe but because she's a human being with one kick-ass gleam in her eye.
Hmmm. Wait a minute.
Maybe she really is half human and half demon after all?
Legend of the Red Reaper, as noted, has its world premiere on 8/31 at the Central Florida Film Festival and will no doubt see its festival successes continue after that opening date. For more information on the film, check out its always delightful Facebook page.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic