RONDO - "A Gritty Sex-Fueled Blood Bath"

Everything old is new again, and when it comes to genre filmmaking...well, I suppose it never REALLY went out of style. Rondo, written and directed by Drew Barnhardt falls into that now overflowing category that is "retro". While those films are fun, I can safely say that I've had my fill. Fortunately for me, Mr. Barnhardt avoided the common trappings of having an '80s synth score, neon pink and blue lighting and any reference to VHS, and instead focuses on interesting characters and situations that are new while also very familiar.

"Rondo", is the strange and twisted tale about Paul, a veteran who is having trouble living a normal life after the war who self medicates his trauma with booze. Both the drinking and the trauma have left him unable to work a regular job or find a place of his own, and as a result his younger sister Jill has taken him in during this trying time of his life.

After a short while the drinking gets the better of Jill and she finds her brother a therapist. A very, forward therapist, who suggests that he step outside of his routine. Keep drinking if it helps, but in addition to it she suggests sex. She offers Paul all sorts of options with various groups that specialize in sex related therapy – many of which are fetish based. As the old saying goes; “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone”, and after the initial hesitation, Paul gives in and places the call to meet up with one of these groups suggested by his therapist.

That night, Paul arrives at a high class apartment building with a password ("Rondo"), and several other willing participants. The festivities of the evening involve Mr. and Mrs. Tims. Mr. Tims is an older wealthy man who has arranged this meeting in which Paul and the other participants are invited to have sex with Mrs. Tims. Several accomplices aid in the arrangements of this evening while Lurdell, an older hired hand runs down the rules. In short the men, one at a time, are given the opportunity to carryout any and all preferred sexual positions or kinks on Mrs. Tims. It is their intentions that Mrs. Tims is used like an object and violence is encouraged.

All of this is an elaborate set up for murder which Paul unwittingly witnesses. Lurdell and his helpers later track Paul down and kill him - quieting the only person who could lead the police back to their business of sex related murders. But there is a problem. Paul's sister Jill uncovers what happened. Feeling guilty for recommending the therapist that eventually resulted in the death of her brother, she starts to hatch a plan to retrace her brother's steps, locate the apartment building and exact sweet revenge.

"Rondo" is an interesting amalgamation of classic grindhouse exploitation and savvy modern filmmaking. At its heart it’s a revenge film, referential of its influences but jazzed up with a few clever camera tricks showing how much thought the crew put into each scene.

In fact I'd go a step further and say that the cinematography is spot on as most of the key scenes are framed really well. The shot composition adds depth to these scenes by utilizing action in the foreground and background, filling the screen with information. This sort of thing really heightens the suspense and action sequences.

The soundtrack is also worth pointing out. Nearly every major emotional scene utilizes a different genre, fitting of what's going on during that scene. It's no Hitchcockian score with dramatic strings, but it's a nice touch that strengthens the drama and again, reflecting the thought and planning of the production.

Also, the combination of sex and violence and how they were used was a nice touch. The relationship being that the sex was the trap for the following violence.

Admittedly, I’m a little disappointed that the women of the film didn’t step forward and take center stage more which could have added extra relevance and power to the sex. As the story unfolds, I expected there to be a reveal that Cassie, the woman who recommended the sex therapy to Paul, was the mastermind of the entire organization. Able to easily manipulate the men around her to carry out her crimes, and only Jill, a younger and more cunning and clever woman – immune to Cassie’s influence – could get the better of her. But sadly this never developed.

"Rondo" also has a sense of humor that’s so subtle it might be missed if you aren’t watching closely. I don’t mind but it left some scenes feeling out of place and maybe they would be better suited in "Raising Arizona" than a gritty sex fueled blood bath.

One of two important complaints that I have is that, like the humor, some parts of it don’t exactly fit. I enjoyed the set up that revealed a murder mystery, leading Paul to become paranoid about who this group of hired killers really are and how far they reach. But sometime between this and the final climax, something is lost and never regained. The film loses steam.

The second complaint is that at times "Rondo" is too safe. Close to the end of the film, Lurdell gets the drop on Jill and holds her hostage. Jill sits nearly nude with a gun pointed at her inside the "Rondo" apartment while members of “the business” drink, dance and celebrate around her. Aside from the gun pointed at her, she never feels in danger. I struggled to remember at this point what justifies her motivation for revenge, asking; “What happened to her? Oh yeah, they killed her brother”. But by the climax this feels light years away and no longer resonates.

I don’t often find myself saying this but, I could have use some good old fashioned sadism. While you have the gun pointed at Jill, rough her up a little bit. Show the viewer just how bad these bad guys are. Rekindle the feeling that Jill is justified for hunting down her brother’s killers and doing them in even worse.

The film ends with Jill, standing sexy and strong, wearing only her bra, panties and stockings, while holding what looks like an AK-47 as she mows down her enemies stone faced and in cold blood. An iconic grindhouse image that, if this were the 1970s, would have made the movie poster for sure.

This ending carries on for MINUTES and is brutal. Just what a revenge flick needs, but, its level of violence and extremity clash with the preceding scene that lacks danger and the justification for this brutality.

In the end, I can tell what screenwriter/director Drew Barnhardt was going for and I like it, but he stumbled in a few important areas keeping him from achieving what I feel he should have with "Rondo". He pulled his punches and the film suffers for it, but I still recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of genre films and ‘70s exploitation...or...Tarantino.

"Rondo" was released earlier this week on DVD and VOD by the fine people at Artsploitation Films.


★ ★ ½

"A troubled veteran is given a special drug that opens a door to a world of sex, murder, and revenge. "