Mob boss Virgil Vadalos (Tom Berenger) is sharing a steam room conference with his Mexican rival when they are brutally attacked by Raina (Stana Katic), his hooker ex-girlfriend turned vengeful assassin, who leaves them for dead. Virgil survives however and orders corrupt LAPD detective Beck (Paul Sloan, also the film’s screenwriter) to find out why his onetime lover is killing criminals around town. His other problem is the disappearance of two million dollars in cash. Virgil’s top two henchmen: broody Lee (Michael Biehn) and scheming Alex (William Forsythe) suspect each other of the theft. In the meantime Raina continues seducing then killing mobsters, working her way towards a second shot at Virgil.
As a child actor Villelonga had his first brush with filmmaking as an extra at the wedding scene in The Godfather (1972). The Godfather influence is apparent from Tom Berenger’s opening monologue even though “kill everyone” is a lot less profound and ambiguous a line than “I believe in America.” Nevertheless, it is the Tarantino riffs that are front and centre in Stiletto. Like Kill Bill (2003) the plot follows a wronged woman on a roaring rampage of revenge against an older lover-cum-mob boss, gradually eliminating minor league villains played by special guest stars. Alongside the trifecta of Berenger, Biehn and Forsythe the film gives us Tom Sizemore as a middle-aged hip-hop wannabe, Diane Venora as Virgil’s distraught wife, Kelly Hu as Beck’s partner both on and off the case and Dominique Swain as a pregnant hooker friend of Raina’s. As Raina murders her way through the movie, Sloan and Villelonga lift scenes from True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) with an extreme torture sequence where Michael Biehn takes an electric sander to D.B. Sweeney. Remarkably the filmmakers even throw in a nod to Grindhouse (2007) with a film-within-a-film sequence where Stana Katic disguises herself as a bespectacled geek to off one villain at a horror movie marathon. A shoot-out at a Japanese restaurant where mob men watch sexy samurai chicks battle with wooden swords also evokes memories of the “House of Blue Leaves” sequence in Kill Bill but comes across more Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991).
The film echoes some of Tarantino’s strengths such as utilising under-appreciated actors in lively eccentric roles and quirky character interplay - e.g. Lee’s relationship with his crazy, foul-mouthed, sadomasochistic British girlfriend Penny (Amanda Brooks) - but also some of his flaws including casual racism and misogyny. Villelonga does not stint on the scantily-clad eye-candy but it is unnerving how many scenes feature macho men pacifying hysterical women with a good hard shag. It is less overtly stylised than Kill Bill and consequently slightly more believable with a pronounced streak of melancholy that is quite interesting as corrupt cop Beck grows to realise he is as much Virgil’s property as Raina was. The ambiguous finale is another nice touch. Despite an abundance of recognisable names among the supporting players the film was sold on the strength of an early lead role for model turned actress Stana Katic. Katic had a small part in Quantum of Solace (2008) but Stiletto came out the same year she landed her breakout role opposite Nathan Fillion in the delightful detective show Castle. Here she shows some star quality with a committed performance but has surprisingly little screen time as the avenging angel. The film is too enamoured of scenes with macho mobsters mumbling meaningful monologues to muster the kind of wit, pace and panache that quantifies a great exploitation movie.