Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Once Upon a Time in China 2



ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2 (1992)

Directed by: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Tsui Hark, Tin-suen Chan and Cheung Tan
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan and Donnie Yen

Still standing the test of time, Once Upon a Time in China 2 (OUATIC 2) is a classic that rightly deserves the praise it receives. A major accomplishment in the careers of both Jet Li and Donnie Yen, not to mention director, Tsui Hark, OUATIC 2 is a must for any martial arts fan and one of the best the genre has ever delivered. Li returns as legendary Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung. Continuing his adventures from the previous instalment, Wong and his trusty companions Foon (Siu Chung Mok) and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) find themselves going up against the fanatical White Lotus Society. A gang so apposed to Western influence and integration in China, they go to ridiculous lengths to keep their country pure. When the White Lotus extreme methods threaten the lives of a group of children, Wong decides its time to step in and restore his country’s pride by driving the fanatics out. While he is also somewhat opposed to total Western domination, Wong feels the two cultures can work side by side and that the White Lotus are misrepresenting his country and its people.



First off, if you are going to watch this film (and you should) then make sure it’s a pristine widescreen copy. Widescreen is the best (and only) way to watch OUATIC 2, as it captures the richness and beauty of the sumptuous sets and cinematography. So rich in period detail is the film, Tsui Hark has created a vivid world with ambitious sets that are just as awe inspiring as the fanciful martial arts. Hark (OUATIC, The Blade) demonstrates his skills as a director keeping a tight reign on the huge sets, the massive action, comedy and some strong social commentary, weaving it all into an intoxicating whole. He presents both sides to the situation of Western influence making its way into Eastern culture. Wong is neither opposed nor outright comfortable with Western ideals. The scenes of him and Foon riding a train and dealing with Western medicine for the first time are handled with gentle comedy as the two come to terms with a world they have never known. On the other side are the extreme beliefs of the White Lotus who will go to any lengths to keep China “pure”, even so far as harming children who dare to learn a foreign language. All this gives Hark’s film a deeper and more personal base for the characters motivations and the drive of the action.



Li, Yen, who plays a tough local magistrate, who may or may not be an ally to Wong, and the rest of the cast are on top form deftly switching from drama to comedy to action as the film tries to covers all bases. In a role he was born to play, Li brings charismatic grace to Wong making us always like him, even when he is a little hard on his loyal servant, Foon. His fighting skills are second to none and his fights with Donne Yen (which the film is most famous for) are some of the best Hong Kong has ever dished up. Choreographed by the legendary, Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey), their first confrontation is a short and sweet fight in what looks like a market square at night. Using Shaolin Lance (long poles), the fight is breakneck and brutal, long takes allowing us to marvel at the skill of the fighters. The two then rematch come the finale, again using poles, in a fight this reviewer feels is still one of the best put on screen. The two spin, jump, flip, kick, twist and knock each other silly in a confined, scaffolding like enclosure in an intense duel to the death. Remarkable stuff which makes the film compulsive viewing. Not forgetting Li’s extended wild fight with the leader of the White Lotus clan, the action and fighting in OUATIC 2 are top notch. It may be a little wire and weapon heavy (it would have been nice to see Li and Yen go fist to fist and boot to boot a little more) but the creativity of the fights is never less than extraordinary and a testament to the skill of those involved in their creation.



OUATIC 2 is classic epic kung fu entertainment. The tone may vary a little and the comedy could have been toned back somewhat (though is nowhere near as stratospheric as many other films of this genre) but OUATIC 2 is beautiful, exciting, martial arts heavy cinema that (dare I say it), is better than its even more classic predecessor. Essential.

Der Clown



DER CLOWN (2005)

Directed by: Sebastian Vigg
Screenplay: Timo Berndt
Starring: Sven Martinek, Eva Haberman, Thomas Anzenhofer, Xenia Seeberg and Gotz Otto

Action Concept is a German based production-company that specialises in action orientated products. With a real back to basics feel, Action Concept is an old school purveyor of the action sequence: no CGI, everything done for real. Scoring huge hits with their German TV series Der Clown and Alarm Fur Cobra 11, both of which feature many a spectacular vehicular stunt and explosion, the company has now moved into cinema territory. They recently released their second feature Kampfansage (aka The Challenge), a modern day martial arts flick, but their first main feature was 2005’s Der Clown: Payday, a spin-off movie from the original TV series. And while, yes, the main protagonist likes to wear a clown mask during scenes of high risk danger and the plot often seems to be an excuse to destroy as many BMW’s as possible, Der Clown: Payday is an action movie that delivers in spades.



Der Clown or The Clown first saw incarnation as a TV movie for German television. Featuring the exploits of Max Hecker (Sven Martinek), his trusty sidekick, Dobbs (Thomas Anzenhofer) and sexy heroine, Claudia (Diana Frank), the TV movie became a TV series and had the three vigilante types running around Germany thwarting bad guys, dodging the police and getting caught up in many (many) car chases. Hecker wears a clown mask to hide his identity and, acting like a modern day Robin Hood, fights crime and stands up for the innocent. A bit odd sounding, maybe, but it all works mainly due to the enthusiastic performances and the abundance of expertly staged action sequences. All of which are replicated, ten fold, in the big budget movie version.



The film opens with previous events, detailing the killing of Claudia, the escape of the killer and Hecker swearing vengeance. ‘The Clown’ is now in hiding, as a security guard at a mall awaiting the return of Zorbeck (Gotz Otto: Stamper from Tomorrow Never Dies), Claudia’s killer, who has hidden the plans for his next daring heist in the mall. Yet things are never simple. Zorbeck kidnaps a reporter, Leah (Eva Habermann) who just happens to be Claudia’s sister and uses her to flush out the The Clown/Hecker. Hecker is soon persuaded by Dobbs to don the Clown mask one more time to save Leah and stop Zorbeck and his crew from stealing all the gold from Germany’s Federal Reserve. And that’s basically it. Action is piled upon action as The Clown, Dobbs and Leah kick into high gear and start destroying those aforementioned BMW’s.



The main cast share good chemistry and acquit themselves well in both the action and drama departments. Otto and Xenia Seeberg (from the Lexx TV series) are also on fine form as the sneering bad guys. The production is polished, moves at a fair lick and has its fair share of tension during the suspense and action sequences. And what action it is. As mentioned, Action Concept are renowned for doing all their stunts for real. Thus there is a (welcome) feel of 80’s action movie about The Clown: the plot is kept simple, the good are good, the bad are bad and the stunts and explosions come thick and fast. Competently holding its own against Hollywood blockbusters (and leaving many overloaded CGI behemoths far behind in the dust), The Clown features one huge set piece after the other. From the opening armoured car heist, to the gunfight/motorcycle chase/ helicopter rescue, to the dodging missiles/ ‘raining gold bars’ finale, the movie’s action sequences are absolutely thrilling. There are two set pieces alone that make the film worth watching. The first is a car chase that features up to 12 police vehicles being launched into the air, many vaulting over a nearby hovering helicopter. Simply jaw dropping; this stunt quite rightly won the Taurus World Stunt award in 2005. The other is the sequence involving an eighteen-wheeler that, among other things, has a helicopter land on it before smashing it into an oncoming bridge. All done for real, no CGI.



I know we all like a good story and strong character development to go along with our action, but sometimes it is refreshing to watch an action movie simply supply pure unadulterated action thrills. There is enough story and charisma to carry the film to stop it becoming a shallow exercise in explosions and the end credits show how fun it obviously was to make. Fight fans may be a little disappointed with the lack of one on one combat as this is primarily a stunt filled film, and those looking for a slightly more complex action ride may feel under challenged. But for the rest of us fans, The Clown provides the requisite action thrills and then shoots into overdrive. Watch out for the cool Speed reference that also adds to the fun factor.

Adrenalin: Fear the Rush



ADRENALIN: FEAR THE RUSH (1996)

Directed by: Albert Pyun
Screenplay: Albert Pyun
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Natasha Henstridge, Norbert Weisser and Elizabeth Barondes.

Ah, the prolific Albert Pyun. Love him or hate him, there doesn’t seem to be any stopping him. I have never known a director (one working in the lower budget realms of cinema anyway) to be so universally hated and loved in equal measure. Some believe him to be the worst director alive, his films being nothing more than incoherent, badly edited (which is quite true), piles of tosh. While others believe him to be a low budget cinematic genius, who can quite often create a dazzling action sequence on a minuscule budget. I’m afraid to say I agree with the latter, as I am a big fan of Albert Pyun’s films. That’s not to say he hasn’t made some shit; Heatseeker, Omega Doom, and all those gangster flicks are some examples. But despite these misfires, Pyun has also given us such action classics as Cyborg, Knights (the best medieval, cyborg, kung-fu movie ever), The Sword and the Sorcerer, Mean Guns and the greatest of them all, Nemesis. Then we have Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, which was released in 1996 and falls somewhere in between: not as good as say Nemesis or Mean Guns but way more enjoyable than either Heatseeker or any of the odd Nemesis sequels. Though generally loathed, I am going to start off by saying that I really enjoyed Adrenalin.



The year is 2007 and a toxic chemical leak in Eastern Europe has created a deadly new virus. This virus has spread to America where the government has created special quarantine camps (entombed behind giant walls) to house all the infected immigrants. Rookie cop, Delon (Henstridge) is charged with going into said camps to find out what happened to a squad of cops that have disappeared only to discover a violent, virus infected killer on the loose. Her partner is swiftly killed and surviving a close call with the killer herself, she joins forces with officer Lemieux (Lambert) and fellow cops Cuzo (Weisser) and Wocek (Barondes) to hunt the maniac down and stop him from spreading the virus. That’s basically it plot wise. Adrenalin is a simple chase movie: cops chase killer, killer chases cops, many people die…horribly. Two other cops played by Pyun regulars Andrew Divoff and Nicholas Guest pop up now and again to let the police chief know how dangerous the killer is (or something), convincing him to send in another team to help catch the slaughterer, who all end up as more fresh meat for the killer to slay.



On a simple level, Adrenalin works quite well for a low budget flick. The action moves rapidly from an abandoned building, to the streets and finally to the (very dirty) sewers, giving the film momentum. George Mooradian’s energetic camerawork twirls around, chases after and zooms in on the characters and action, heightening the intensity of the situation. The bullets’-view gunshots and opening tracking shot are quite impressive too. (Mooradian has shot most of Pyun’s work, including Nemesis, and also shot the great, great Retroactive). The action and killing is of a very down and dirty nature. The killings are often violent and bloody, with the killer using a blade that would give Crocodile Dundee a serious case of knife envy. Our heroes are often caked in mud and grime as they crawl through some of the filthiest tunnels and sewers ever seen on screen. And when it cuts to the next scene, they are not miraculously clean either. The actors are dirty for the entire movie, as one would expect for spending most of the running time in the sewers.

The acting isn’t too bad either for this type of direct to video nonsense. Lambert is his usual gruff and wisecracking self (is he ever anything else?). Henstridge (Species 1, 2 and 3) is good as the rookie cop fending for her life, looking adequately stressed and scared when the occasion warrants it. Weisser (Schindler’s List and another Pyun regular) is suitably harassed as the not so heroic Cuzo (though where does he disappear to for half the film?) and Barondes (The Forsaken) is equally good as the most likely to be seriously injured Wocek.



While Adrenalin is good and one of Pyun’s better films it still suffers from some obvious flaws (but what low budget or any budget movie for that matter doesn’t?) As with many Pyun films, some scenes are badly put together, meaning it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. In addition, a scene of a guard looking over the river at the high walled compounds (presumably an effects shot) and a close up of a numbered building are shown repeatedly, often so randomly that it becomes confusing as to why they are being shown again and again. Coherency isn’t one of Pyun’s strong points either but he manages to keep everything flowing adequately here, mainly due to the simplicity of the plot.

In fact, the plot is often so simple and non-existent that some scenes are left to build up for way too long. To stretch out the running time, the protagonists are left wandering the corridors, while music and cuts to close ups go on far too long before anything actually happens. If you can get past this (and the fact the film was so obviously not shot in America) then keeping things simple works in the film’s favour. We don’t always need back stories and subplots (though there is a small one concerning Henstridge's character smuggling an illegal passport for her son to escape with). Sometimes it is just enjoyable to have a straightforward chase movie. Which is exactly what Adrenalin is: a good chase movie.

Most people will (and do) hate this movie, but I thought it was great. A good addition to the likes of Nemesis and Mean Guns and if you are a lover of low budget, sci-fi, action flicks then this should be right up your street. Now if Pyun just hadn’t made those damn weird Nemesis sequels……

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Sworn to Justice



SWORN TO JUSTICE (1996)

Directed by: Paul Maslak
Screenplay by: Robert Easter
Starring: Cynthia Rothrock, Kurt McKinney and Kenn Scott

Cynthia Rothrock plays Janna, a top class psychologist who is also very adept at martial arts (well she’d have to be, seeing as this is a Cynthia Rothrock movie). Returning home one night to find her sister and nephew slain in a burglary, Janna is confronted by the robbers. Engaging them in a short, brutal fight she flees, banging her head during her escape. Upon recovery, Janna finds she has developed psychic powers (like you would) and sets about catching the killers and ridding the streets of violence.



So far, Sworn to Justice sounds like your regular martial arts revenge flick starring high-kicking babe, Cynthia Rothrock. If that were the case, then Sworn to Justice would have been a fairly entertaining action flick. Instead, the filmmakers have jumbled the whole thing with too many plot threads, characters and ideas. Janna’s psychic ability (a novel, if silly, idea) is picked up and then dropped almost as quickly. Never really developed, it serves only for her to figure out the most obvious of clues. Then there’s Janna’s budding romance with Nick (McKinney). About as convincing as your typical soap opera, complete with jealous love rival, it is all very tedious. One presumes this was an attempt to show the softer, sexier side of Rothrock. There are also too many bad guys introduced, including Kenn Scott’s mob boss, Eugene (!?); pointless cameos from Walter Keoing, Brad Dourif and Mako (playing the most unconvincing blind newspaper salesman ever); and a complete lack of narrative coherence.



It’s a fair attempt by the filmmakers to try something different with a well-worn story and they at least succeed in creating some well-shot and energetic fight scenes. Choreographed by Eric Lee (Final Impact) and Douglas Kung, the fights are punchy and inventive. The best is a scrap Rothrock has with three guys holding up a convenience store, while the worst is the sloppy duel between Scott and McKinney. There is also a great fight (albeit an extremely short one) between Rothrock and Scott, featuring sticks and nunchuks, which is frustratingly cut short by needless exposition. Just as things are getting good, another bad guy pops up to tell us why he is so bad.

Sworn to Justice is watchable, but is only really recommended for die-hard Rothrock fans (she gets her kit off) and Star Trek devotees wanting to see Chekov’s cameo (I’m afraid to say, and relieved, that he doesn’t get his kit off).

Monday, 17 December 2007

Lone Hero



LONE HERO (2002)

Written & Directed by: Ken Sanzel
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Patrick Flanery and Robert Forster

Cowboys who ride motorcycles instead of horses. An actor in a Wild West show who must take up the guns for real to rid his town of biker gang members. Cool shootouts, snappy dialogue and a gruff, tough performance from the great Robert Forster. These are just some of the cool aspects of Ken Sanzel’s Lone Hero, a modern day western that switches horses for motorcycles but never skimps on the shootouts, Stetsons and saloons that make westerns so enjoyable.



Lou Diamond Philips stars as the leader of the motorcycle gang, The Iron Bandits. Laboured with the unfortunate moniker, Bart, he and his gang terrorize one small town after the next, stealing money and killing whoever gets in their way. Arriving in a small Montana town where a Wild West show is the main attraction, the gang make trouble and severely injure a friend of John, (Sean Patrick Flanery). A sharp shooter in the Wild West show, John apprehends Bart and one of his cohorts, placing them in jail. However, word gets out about Bart’s predicament and the rest of the bikers soon turn up in town to free Bart. Joining forces with wizened old gunman, Gus (Robert Forster), John takes up the battle against Bart and his bikers, becoming the hero everyone figured he was destined to be.



A neat twist on western lore, Lone Hero is head and shoulders above most B-movies due to its crisp storytelling and committed cast. Ken Sanzel’s film (he also directed the underrated action/thriller, Scarred City) uses its premise of a modern western to tell the story of ordinary folks caught up in an extraordinary situation. Sharp dialogue helps to propel the action as Bart and John get into as many verbal battles as they do gun battles. The often witty and gruff dialogue is delivered well by Phillips (Renegades) and Flanery (Boondock Saints), with Phillips relishing his role as the thoroughly bad Bart. His speech about John never being able to kill him, thus he will always come back to take revenge, is particularly effective. Yet, it’s Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Vigilante) who gets all the best lines as the grizzled man with a past, as he takes up arms with John and keeps a devilishly dry attitude towards the whole situation.

The flick doesn’t skimp on action either. Sanzel and his stunt guys incorporate some great shootouts, bike stunts and quick draws that all add to the western flavour. Rifles, pump actions and six shooters all feature heavily with the Wild West show town being the setting for the explosive and trigger happy finale. Bikers ride in on hogs, let rip with automatic fire and even chase each other over the rooftops of the town’s buildings. Another tense shootout sees John saving Gus from four bikers, using the turned backs of the bad guys to good effect. All the action is gunfire heavy and delivered with punch.

A gem of a movie and a spin on the typical action fare, Lone Hero is a fun ride and a flick well worth seeking out for fans of the stars, fans of the western genre and fans of action movies in general.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Kids from Shaolin: Shaolin Temple 2



KIDS FROM SHAOLIN: SHAOLIN TEMPLE 2 (1984)

Directed by: Cheung Hsin Yen
Starring: Jet Li and Cheng-Hui Yu

An energetic if sporadic martial arts romp, Kids from Shaolin was only Jet Li’s second movie appearance. Equal parts goofy, exciting and tedious, the flick works best when Li and his band of pint sized pugilists are kicking butt and performing amazing feats of acrobatics. Li is the oldest son of a family full of boys who live on one side of a river in a remote part of China. Looked after by their adopted father, Li and his clan practice Shaolin Kung fu while on the opposite side of the river a family full of girls practice Wu Tang Sword. Its boys vs. the girls as the opposing clans try to outmatch each other with their different styles but secretly they all want to hang out, get along and learn each other’s disciplines. So when Li cooks up some daft scheme for his dad to marry one of the girl clan, much tomfoolery, kung fu and outright barmi-ness ensue.



They sure don’t make them like this anymore. A kung fu comedy flick from a bygone era, Kids of Shaolin is full of zany characters, dialogue and plot contrivances. While all the kids, who make up the two clans, are full of energy, and human dynamos when it comes to all the flipping and kicking, their endless mugging does become tiresome. Nobody just speaks in this film, it’s all shouting, wailing and stretching comedy situations to breaking point. There are some laughs but if you are not accustomed to this kind of broad Chinese comedy, then you might find yourself asking what the hell is going on. Random plot divergences don’t help either, like the shift in tone when the father of the girl clan decides to drown his daughter for talking to Jet Li (but is still expected to love and respect him when she survives !!??). Or the “out-of-nowhere” subplot about some one eyed bandit who wants revenge on Li and his family, just so there can be a massive fight at the end.



However, if you can get past the crazy comedy and wobbly storytelling, Kids from Shaolin is reasonably enjoyable. The beautiful photography catches the lush countryside and mountain ranges of Mainland China, giving the film a unique setting. The film also provides novelty value in seeing Li at such a young age and so early in his career. Obviously just going with the flow and having a blast at being in some movies, Li is all energetic innocence. He can also bust a move in the kung fu department. Li and the Shaolin kids get much opportunity to show off, the most memorable scene being a contest between the boys and girls where they fight each other using various animal styles of kung fu. There is also the epic twenty minute finale fight that features the entire cast getting in on the action in a free-for-all martial arts showdown. While the techniques, styles and acrobatics are impressive the fights do lack the intensity of other kung fu flicks. There is a lot of jumping about and rolling and while it’s good to look at, it often feels like everyone is just showing off. Still, there is great use of weapons, Li is as nimble as ever and if sword fighting is your thing, then check this one out.

Not the best the genre has to offer but entertaining nevertheless. Kids from Shaolin represents where Li got his start and shows kung fu movies can have a lighter side. Plus a final twenty minute smackdown is always welcome and that is one thing kung fu movies have being doing well for some decades now.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Hitman



HITMAN (2007)

Directed by: Xavier Gens
Screenplay: Skip Woods
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott and Olga Kurylenko

Having never played the video game upon which the film is based, and rarely playing video games in general (unless you count Super Mario All Stars on the Super Nintendo), I had no expectations of Hitman living up to its source material. How the film compares to the game and how well it sticks to the concept, I cannot tell you but I can tell you that Hitman was a pleasant surprise (for the most part) and nowhere near as bad as some critics may have you believe. For a film based on a video game, Hitman was pretty darn good.

Timothy Olyphant (Die Hard 4) stars as Agent 47, a hitman for a shady agency who globe trots around the world taking out various high ranking officials and political personalities. Bald, muscular, tough and with a distinguishing bar code tattooed on the back of his head, Agent 47 is a no-nonsense killer who has honed his skills to perfection over many years of killing. His in the shadows existence is put into jeopardy when an eager Interpol agent (Dougray Scott) gets on his trail and proves a tenacious pursuer. Agent 47’s company also has other plans for him, plans that include setting him up and sending many other bald, bar-coded tattooed killers after him. With prostitute/ possible-love-interest/witness (Olga Kurylenko) in tow, Agent 47 goes on the run, attempting to stay alive, stay one step ahead of his pursuers and stay on target with his next hit.



While Hitman was “pretty darn good” it is by no means perfect, and certainly not very original in the story department. With shades of the Bourne series, the story of a ruthless killer going up against the establishment that trained him is hardly a breath of fresh air. However, with Xavier Gens’ flashy direction, dedicated leads, a bit more grit than usual and some solid action scenes, Hitman proves to be an entertaining ride. The European locations add a tasty flavour to the action and a pulsating score keeps it moving at such a lick you hardly have time to realize how absurd and convoluted the plot has become. Olyphant carries the picture, giving a strong and human performance as the killer who suddenly has to deal with his regimented life being turned upside down. Naysayers had doubts about him filling the shoes of the game’s character, but he fits the role perfectly bringing a little more depth than expected. Dougray Scott (MI2) is on fine form and actually looks like he is having fun playing the good guy for a change. Olga Kurylenko, who despite spending a good portion of the film semi-naked, also makes an impression as the impossibly sexy prostitute, Nika.



Xavier Gens (director of cult horror, Frontiere(s)) steers his first Hollywood picture with aplomb creating a couple of standout action scenes. Agent 47’s escape from a Swat infested hotel and an extended fight in and under a train with other assassins, are pulled off with skill and thankfully steer away from CGI enhancement. Mixing gunplay, swordfights and good old fisticuffs, the action is brutal and often bloody. Rumour has it the studio interfered and trimmed Gens original cut to make it a little less bloody. A shame really, as Hitman could have been a great opportunity to push the envelope and make a really adult action film. Still, it’s bloody enough and in these days of watered down everything, we should be thankful.



If there is a downside to the flick, it seems it has been just a bit too rushed. The film doesn’t look or feel as polished as the trailers suggest and while some sequences are well put together (the hotel action scene) others feel sloppy and rushed (the whole restaurant cum assassination scene). The pace and music do contribute to the adrenaline rush the movie is trying to achieve (it is a chase movie after all) but an extra ten minutes of running time wouldn’t have gone a miss. Those expecting a full origin story about Agent 47 may be disappointed also, as little time is given to his back-story and motivations, the narrative concerning itself more with chase/action/double-crossing element.

It may not be the most original action movie to come along but Hitman does provide an hour and half of solid entertainment. It’s got some appealing leads, a couple of tight action scenes and a genuinely fun ending. Hitman is recommended to those who can forgive its shortcomings (really, how does a guy wearing no shoes walk into a high priced clothes store and come out with a new suit?) and enjoy the high octane thrills it delivers (that awesome shootout in a night club). Here’s hoping a longer and more intense cut is released on DVD.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Drunken Tai Chi



DRUNKEN TAI CHI (1984)
 
Directed by: Yuen Woo Ping
Screenplay: Yuen Woo Ping
Starring: Donnie Yen and Yuen Hsin Yee
 
Drunken Tai Chi marked the screen debut of Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen. Directed by action master Yuen Woo Ping, the film is a riotous comedy that mixes slapstick hi-jinks, Benny Hill style innuendos and intricate martial arts sequences into a very entertaining whole. Yen plays the fun loving, slightly cocky, Ching who along with his brother (Yuen Yat Chor) drive off the trouble making son of a local nobleman. Angry and humiliated at his son being defeated, and left insane, the nobleman sends out ruthless warrior, Killer Bird (Yuen Hsin Yee) to kill Ching, his brother and father. Killer Bird manages to slay the brother and father but Ching escapes, left homeless and roaming the streets. Taken in by a completely bonkers couple (Yuen Cheung Yan and Lydia Shum), they teach Ching the deadly art of Tai Chi for his inevitable showdown with Killer Bird and the nobleman.



Pretty standard stuff and stock plot for many an old school kung fu flick, the story of a young fighter training with an older master to defeat those who done him wrong, is nothing new. However, when you add in Donnie Yen’s charisma and superior fighting skills, some mad-cap comedy and a lightening quick pace, you’ve got one fun time flick. Regular viewers of kung fu films with this particular kind of over the top comedy will be familiar with all the madness this flick throws onto the screen. If you are a regular viewer of these flicks, then no doubt you will enjoy it. If not, then you will either hate it, discover something amazing or be baffled as to what you just saw. To say the comedy is broad is an understatement, but this film certainly had this viewer laughing out loud. It may be crude and outdated at times but the slapstick set-pieces are just as creative as the action ones. Yen and the cast throw themselves full force into the comedy and action, their enthusiasm threatening to go the through the stratosphere. Add in colourful backdrops, sets and enough kung fu combat to sate the most avid fan, Drunken Tai Chi a riot from beginning to end. Memorable scenes include a fight scene with fireworks, a rather large women trying to cross a bridge, Yen’s variation on arm wrestling, a fight with puppets and street performers, a man building a rocking horse using kung fu, a novel way to make a mattress, a villain in a big rolling wheel (!?) and umpteen scenes where no matter how simple the task at hand is, it always descends into kung fu.



Don’t go in expecting Drunken Master (another fighting flick by Yuen Woo Ping and a classic of the genre) as while that film featured much comedy, it was more streamlined and intense in its kung fu action. Drunken Tai Chi is more comparable to Kung Fu Hustle (minus all the CGI) in terms of tone and entertainment. While the flick is set in old times it does feature such modern references as skateboarding, bmxing and even break dancing (which Donnie Yen seems to be just as adept at as he is in kung fu) and those who don’t know what to expect from this type of film may be a little jarred. However, those of us (myself included) who have seen many of these films, will enjoy the good nature, the insane comedy and the plentiful fights. Much like its star, Drunken Tai Chi is fast, fluid and fun.
 

Monday, 3 December 2007

Stealth



STEALTH (2005)
 
Directed by: Rob Cohen     
Written by: W.D. Richter
Starring: Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jaime Foxx and Sam Shepard.
 
In the not too distant future, the U.S. Air Force has an elite strike team headed by pilots Gannon (Lucas), Wade (Biel) and Purcell (Foxx). The best of the best, these three uber-flyers pilot sophisticated, hi-tech Stealth planes on deadly missions all around the globe. So it comes as a surprise when they are joined by a fourth wingman: a completely computerized Stealth plane flown by a 2001 Hal type artificial intelligence (called EDI or Tinman or something). Gannon is sceptical, believing he will be replaced by a bunch of microchips and that war shouldn’t be reduced to some kind of video game. Captain Cummings(!?) (Shepard) thinks otherwise and insists the robot plane accompanies the team on missions. But when the new plane is struck by lightening and develops a mind of its own, all hell breaks loose and the air-jockeys find themselves in pursuit of the renegade Stealth.



Not being a fan of Rob Cohen’s prevous two action blockbusters, The Fast And The Furious (utter cheese) and XXX (good action scenes, shame about the extreme athlete/dude bollocks), I wasn’t expecting Stealth to be all that great. However, and maybe its just cause I’m a sucker for over-the-top action flicks, Stealth was a pleasant surprise. Firstly, the visual effects are nowhere near as bad as the trailer would suggest, though the planes never really look real they work within the films sci-fi trappings. CGI is overused a little (an extremely bad shot of planes landing on a ship at night highlights this) but it works for the most part. Cohen and his effects team have managed to create a series of adrenaline fuelled action/flight sequences that are thrilling to watch (though some may find them cut too fast). Planes swoop over one another; the camera flies back and forth over the cockpits; and a mid-air refuelling that goes terribly wrong, and a dazzling flight ejection sequence show what a capable action director Cohen can be. I’m not necessarily an advocate of CGI, but if used right it can be effective. There is an onslaught of it at times (seriously we don’t need any more shots that zoom inside a vehicle or contraption to show all the pistons pistoning and cogs cogging), but it manages to stay the right side of a Van Helsing crapfest. In fact, the final act eschews all the highflying CGI for more gritty ground-based warfare.



The cast perform admirably with the material given. Lucas (Wonderland) is an intelligent, if cocky, hero bringing a bit more edge to what could have been a bland hero type. Sam Shepard (Thunderheart) is gruff and tough as Captain Cummings and it’s either kinda novel or worrying to see a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright in a big action blockbuster. Biel (Blade 3) is particularly effective in her on-the-run scenes (if reduced to the damsel in distress) in the latter part of the film but will most likely be remembered for her bikini scenes. Only Foxx comes off bad as the token comedy black guy who has expendable written all over him.



Though foremost a whiz-bang actioneer, there are a few scenes which ponder on the ramifications of war and the role the computer plays in it, that give the film a bit more depth compared to all the explosions (which I will get to in a minute). However, these are pretty much proved redundant with the filmmakers taking the stance that all bad guys must be either Russian, Korean or of middle-eastern descent. Yes, the good guys are the Americans and the bad guys are your standard AK-47 toting, “We hate America” goons. The film also panders to every demographic going. We’ve got the white hero; the chick that fancies him; bad pseudo rock songs for the teenagers; and of course the comedy minority. It is a shame most films are made for teenagers these days, as Stealth would have benefited from having a bit more grit, bumping it up to a 15 certificate instead of the tamer 12A.
           
Yet at the end of the day and if you can get past the bad stereotyping, Stealth is a whole lot of fun. Exciting, intense and action packed, it’s a straightforward blockbuster that does exactly what it says on the tin. It also features some of the biggest and best explosions ever seen on the big screen and if that isn’t an incentive to see it, then I don’t know what is.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Last Sentinel



The Last Sentinel (2007)

Written and Directed by: Jesse Johnson
Starring: Don Wilson, Katee Sackhoff and Keith David.

Director Jesse Johnson made a splash a couple of years ago with the brutal, indie hit Pit Fighter. It was a breath of fresh air adding the grit (and not to mention some gunplay) back into the fighting tournament film. A renowned stunt co-ordinator, Johnson follows up his genre hit with a more ambitious project set in a post apocalyptic world and starring action movie stalwart, Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

The future has been torched, cities lay wasted and Tallis (Wilson) is the sole survivor of an elite core of super soldier called The 700th. Roaming the empty streets and industrial districts for food and weapons, Tallis lives day to day, hiding from the ever dangerous Drones. A police force brought in to govern a country going to hell; the Drones now rule the land with an iron fist and heavy artillery. Tallis is just trying to stay alive but when a survivor from a rag tag militia (Katee Sackhoff) falls in to his care, Tallis finds himself once again taking on a mission to rid the city, and possibly the country, of the Drones once and for all.



Having really enjoyed Pit Fighter, been a fan of Don “The Dragon” Wilson since my teens and impressed with all the pre-release material for The Last Sentinel, I was somewhat disappointed with the final product. By no means a bad action film (it is still overflowing with explosions and gun battles) but definitely a mixed bag, The Last Sentinel unfortunately fails to keep up its momentum and excitement all the way through. The project may have been a little too ambitious for the budget, though the film certainly scores points for trying. The Drone costumes are a visual treat, the location work well used and the pyrotechnics staggering. Yet, for some reason everything just doesn’t quite gel. It may be Johnson’s script. His direction is pretty solid (and he certainly proved himself a good director with Pit Fighter), especially in the action scenes, but all too often the pace and logic falls apart in the slower scenes. The actors, while good, seem to have been given little to work with and don’t always convince when delivering lines of dialogue. A scene where Sackhoff and Wilson discuss books is so sloppily handled and over almost before it begins, you wonder what on earth it was all about. Obviously to build character, it would have been nice to see the two characters sitting discussing the books rather than just making some random, off the cuff remark. However, the leads are good, Sackhoff is a fiesty freedom fighter and Wilson (finally dropping his kickboxing nickname, The Dragon) gets to act all serious for a change. And is quite good to boot. Sharing a lot of his dialogue with a talking gun (not as bad as it sounds but way overused), Wilson shines as the battle scarred warrior finally finding a human existence with his blossoming relationship with Sackhoff. Good to see him doing something different.



Now the action at times is pretty sweet and at other times ho-hum. The explosions are big and the gunfire hard hitting but for every scene that gets the intensity right there is another that is all over the place. The first battle (a flash back to Tallis’ combat days) is impressive stuff: intense, gritty and bloody. Likewise a running chase through corridors, as the heroes attempt to out run and out gun the Drones and ends in a spectacular escape through a floor and out a window. Yet, there are other scenes that start and stop quite randomly (for instance, Tallis descending from the roof onto some Drones) they ruin any kind of momentum the previous scenes built up. Still, Johnson crams the film with action, meaning you are never too far from an explosion or fire fight and the end showdown, between Tallis and a Commander Drone is visually impressive.



Disappointing in certain respects but entertaining and successful in others, The Last Sentinel is an action flick that will please some and infuriate others. Enjoyable if not highly satisfying it gets by on its ambitions, its leads and its ton of action. Jesse Johnson is still a director to watch and The Last Sentinel does show him branching out and trying different genres and ideas. Let’s hope he’s got his gritty techniques back for his upcoming project, The Butcher.

The Marine



The Marine (2006)

Directed by: John Bonito
Screenplay: Michelle Gallagher & Alan B. McElroy
Starring: John Cena, Kelly Carlson and Robert Patrick

Sometimes it’s the simplicity of action movies that makes them so entertaining. Their complete disregard for logic, physics and character for the sheer abandonment of adrenaline and pyrotechnics: fun times for the sake of fun times. And by this notion, The Marine is pretty simple. Dude’s wife gets kidnapped by trigger happy bad guy and his goons. Dude is an ex-marine, who gives pursuit and blows up everything and everyone in sight, in his path and in this movie. If you’ve seen Schwarzenegger’s Commando, then you’ve seen The Marine. Both films follow almost identical plots and while Commando has the edge in all round kick ass value, The Marine is still quality, explosion heavy entertainment.



Lean and mean at a scant 80mins, The Marine jettisons all set-up, character development and downtime for a series of over the top action scenes as our hero demolishes his way through the swamp and cast in order to get his wife back. John Cena (a pro wrestler making his movie debut) plays John Triton, the titular marine, who spends all of five minutes actually being a marine before being quickly discharged. Following a diamond robbery, a couple of funny scenes seeing our hero trying to adjust to civilian life, and the introduction of the gun toting bad guys, it’s down to business as the movie switches into the familiar chase/hunt element. Cena isn’t bad in his first role and actually comes across as quite human rather than just a killing machine, while Kelly Carlson (Nip/Tuck) adds a little more spark to the obligatory damsel in distress role. The bad guys are a pretty entertaining bunch with T2’s Robert Patrick stealing the show as the completely off his head, Rome. He seems to be having a ball.



The flick is as slick as they come and jam packed with action. While momentum is always kept up, the running time is perhaps just a little too scant. Things, characters and set ups whiz by so quickly sometimes, you wonder what has just happened and who the hell that was. There is a great bit where our hero gets sequestered by two mad-as-a-hatter rednecks and must use his brawn to whoop their asses. The whole scene lasts all of a minute and a half and is cut so quickly, you wonder what was the point of introducing those characters and that scene in the first place. Likewise, with the opening sequence set in Iraq. Triton goes in to rescue a bunch of other marines and machine guns down everyone that isn’t American. What could have been an exciting, extended set piece is all over in a matter of flashes and I’m still trying to figure out what went on and how they got out. And that’s the movie’s downfall: the action is just cut too quickly and apart from the awesome (and yes, very over the top) car chase feels rushed. Let the action scenes breath, let them play out and let us see what our hero is actually doing to thwart all these bad guys.

Still, The Marine is slick entertainment that is nothing more than a series of brawn and booms. If you can get past the mind numbingly awful, over patriotic opening scenes then The Marine is a fun ride that harkens back the days of Arnie and Sly, where to get the job done all you had to do was blow everything up. If The Marine gets one thing right, it’s blowing stuff up and that really is the first and foremost thing you need to get right in an action movie.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Air Panic (aka Triumph in the Sky)



Air Panic (aka Triumph in the Sky) (2001)

Directed by: Bob Misiorowski
Screenplay: Adam Geirash & Jace Anderson
Starring: Rod Rowland, Kristianna Loken and Barbara Carrera

Back in the day (the Nineties anyway) Nu Image cranked out low budget action flicks, creature features and disaster movies. Air Panic (or Triumph in the Sky as it’s known on these shores) was one of their later disaster flicks that, despite it obvious low budget, pushes the concept of air disaster to extreme limits. The story is pretty simple: a disgruntled ex-employee of some company or another creates some device to control planes and sets about crashing them into various buildings and oceans. A cocky flight inspector dude figures this out and rushes to board the next doomed plane (which he does in the most insane and stunt happy way). Its then up to him, the sexy stewardess, the usual assortment of odd ball passengers and the heroes’ buddies on the ground to take back control of the plane before the nutter crashes it into a nuclear power plant. Fun stuff.



Air Panic is an enjoyable B-movie that despite all it absurdness (isn’t that what B-movie’s are founded on?) rattles along at a breakneck pace and is made all the more entertaining by the quality of acting. Rowland, Loken (pre T3 fame) and a few others perform well above the norm for this kind of flick, bringing a little more edge to proceedings. Yeah, the bad dude overacts into oblivion (he is crazy after all!) and there is the obligatory nutter who can’t stand flying and inevitably opens the door mid flight, but in general the cast perform very well. Geirash and Anderson’s script is nothing more than a carbon copy of Speed (complete with hero’s best mate going to the villain’s house only to be blown to smithereens) but the director keeps everything tight, meaning we are never far away from the next in flight disaster or crashing into a mountain scene. The action and tension is ratcheted up nicely, even managing to shoe horn in the destruction of the Baltimore airport and how many B-movies can boast that?



Unfortunately, Air Panic has one major flaw preventing it from being solid gold B-movie entertainment: the special effects. Save for one cool scene where a jet engine falls off and bounces into the airport the effects are very poor. CGI is so amateurish that it often looks unfinished and the digital planes never convince. I know it’s a low budget movie but the effects surely could have been a bit better than this. However, if you can get past that major flaw, then Air Panic is a fun, silly and action packed ride and a definite recommendation for those who like aviation disaster movies.

Friday, 23 November 2007

U.S. Seals 2



U.S. Seals 2 (2001)

Directed by: Isaac Florentine
Screenplay by: Michael Weiss
Starring: Michael Worth, Marshall Teague and Damien Chapa.

Seriously, this movie rocks. If you are kung fu fan or into b-movies in anyway, then check out U.S. Seals 2. Martial arts a go-go, in a film that defies its budget and manages to be far more entertaining than many of its blockbuster counterparts. Having practically bugger all to do with the first U.S. Seals, and U.S Navy Seals in general, the film is mainly an excuse for some gob smacking martial arts sequences, courtesy of Hong Kong maestro, Andy Cheng. Renegade U.S. Seal, Ratliff (Chapa), kidnaps an American science boffin, and with his elite team of mercenaries, whisks her away to an abandoned island where she will be used to activate 2 nuclear missiles. Ratliff is demanding one billion dollars (insert Doctor Evil laugh here), or he will start blowing up half of America with said missiles. Enter Casey (Worth), a U.S Seal and former compadre of Ratliff. Along with General Donner (Teague) and a ragtag bunch of fighters for hire, Casey sets out to the remote island to save the scientist and settle a few scores.



Rogue military soldiers. Stolen missiles. Abandoned islands. An elite team sent in to save the day. Sound familiar? Yep, this is basically The Rock mark 2. However, this is no straightforward rip-off. It’s a rip-off with kung fu. But it’s all part of the fun. Things kick off with a John Woo flavoured opening sequence before the action slows down to let the story take shape. Yes, U.S. Seals 2 does actually have a story and it’s nice to see a little movie taking the time to at least develop a plot, no matter how cheesy it is. When the action kicks in again, it’s a non-stop barrage of wicked martial arts combos. Fight co-ordinator, Cheng and director Florentine, have pulled out all the stops. The combat scenes are fluid and brutal, and the initial scrap on the island is a brilliant free-for-all as the Seals take on dozens and dozens of bad guys, the action cutting seamlessly between different fights. Due to some plot contrivance nobody can shoot a gun, thus all characters swagger around brandishing samurai swords, chains, fighting sticks and their good old fists. This leads to a number of creative fights with various weapons, climaxing in a great showdown in a room raining down with water. Michael Worth is an energetic hero and proves his worth in the fight scenes, Andy Cheng even gets in on the action, as henchman Artie and stuntwoman and martial arts stalwart, Sophia Crawford, also pops up as the obligatory bad girl.



Isaac Florentine’s trademark ‘swoosh’ sound effect is used to full force here, meaning every time a character turns their head, points, raises their gun, or even blinks it is accompanied by a swoosh. A bit cheesy but, again, it all adds to the fun. Florentine is known for delivering kinetic action films with dazzling martial arts on a minuscule budget (check out Special Forces and the great Cold Harvest). His films contain well shot and choreographed action that make big budget action films like Romeo Must Die, look all the more lazy. Along with fellow director, Steve Wang (Drive), Florentine really should be shooting action flicks in the big league.

If you are fan of action, then seek out this surprisingly good flick. Cheesy and over the top, yes, but damn if it isn’t a lot of fun.

Out on Bail



Out on Bail (1989)

Directed by: Gordon Hessler
Screenplay: Michael B. Sonye, Jason Booth, Tom Badal
Starring: Robert Ginty, Kathy Shower and Tom Badal

Out on Bail is a little known action thriller starring B-movie mainstay, Robert Ginty. He stars as drifter, John Dee (get it?), who drifts into the wrong small American town (actually South Africa, doubling not always convincingly for the States). While he’s dining at the local eatery, enjoying a cup of chilli, he unwittingly stops a stick up, killing the two robbers in the process. Receiving no sympathy from the law enforcement he is soon banged up by the lunatic sheriff (Tom Badal). Several beatings and one shifty lawyer later he is “out on bail” and forced to assassinate some local politician or else the sheriff and his cronies will come gunning for him. Finding escape in the arms of town beauty (Kathy Shower), a shotgun and an armoured hearse (no really!), Dee turns the tables on the corrupt townsfolk for the over-the-top, explosive finale.

For what should have been a simple film about a drifter taking revenge on those who done him wrong, Out on Bail is a strange flick that gets bogged down with it’s slow middle half and some bug-ass weird characters. Ginty, usually a reliable force in these kinds of action pictures, practically sleepwalks through the film, nary saying a word. His very awkward love scene with Shower (in a shower!) doesn’t help and what is up with her mute kid who always looks whacked out on some kind of drug? Speaking of weird characters, Tom Badal plays the bonkers sheriff too full tilt, so much so that his ranting and random outbursts just become tiring rather than threatening. Then there is the odd squeaky lawyer, the mad dancing stripper in the bar and those random motorcycle punks in the final chase. Which all add up to a whole lot of Eh?

After some decent action at the beginning, Out on Bail lumbers along in the mid section, taking forever to get to the point. Patience is rewarded with the final half hour which features the aforementioned armoured hearse in an extended chase which includes motorcycle stunts, explosions, a fight on the bonnet of the hearse (cool!) and the spectacular gate crashing of a funeral. The action is solid and overall the film is shot well. Entertaining in parts, Out on Bail is never wholly satisfying due to the wandering tone and wobbly acting. However, those who are fond of low rent action movies of this sort, that were cranked out in the eighties and nineties, may get a kick out of it.