Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Assassins



ASSASSINS (1995)

Directed by: Richard Donner
Screenplay: The Wachowski Brothers and Brian Helgeland
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas & Julianne Moore

A somewhat underrated and forgotten Sly Stallone vehicle that is perhaps a lot better than you remember it. Solid direction from Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, a manic but impressive performance from Banderas, a boat load of Hollywood slickness and plenty of cool action makes Assassins a watchable, enjoyable and, in this day and age of CGI excess, refreshing action movie to watch.

Now the story, heavily re-written by Brian Helgeland from The Wachowski’s originally more dark and sexy script, is not the most original in terms of action cinema and was obviously re-tooled to make it a more Stallone friendly vehicle. He and Banderas play two assassins trying to kill one another, Stallone the old dog who wants out of the business while Banderas is the young hot shot who wants to be number one. In between trying to shoot one another and some intriguing conversations they have about the roles they play within the killing world, sexy Julianne Moore gets caught up in the mix as a feisty computer expert who is the next target on both the assassin’s lists. The two then fight one another across several cities and even continents, trying to kill each other, protect Moore and do something or other with a top secret disk.



Assassins was unfairly lumbered in with the flicks that saw Stallone losing some of his limelight (The Specialist, Get Carter, Driven) and while it’s not as great as the likes of First Blood, Demolition Man and Cliffhanger, it’s still a decent slab of Hollywood action cinema. Stallone is a little more subdued here, never really dishing out one liners and playing a much more quiet and restrained character. Some say he seems disinterested in the role but he seems to be toning down his action image, giving his character the melancholy feel he needs after living a life in solitude. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Banderas sizzling across the screen as the hyperactive Miguel Bain; an attention deficit disorder assassin that gets itchy and twitchy if he isn’t killing somebody. Banderas is great fun and keeps the character the right side of camp, still making him deadly even when he’s shaking his arms all over the place and sweating like a pig. Likewise, Moore is a refreshingly sparky female action character, her computer hacker a feisty heroine to Stallone’s hero.



Word is that The Wachowski’s original script was a much darker ride before getting the Hollywood polish. Written and produced before the success of The Matrix, it would have been interesting to see their true version of Assassins. Instead we get a decent re-write from Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential, Conspiracy Theory) that while never breaking new ground does a decent job of delivering a slick spy action movie. There are still shades of darkness there: Moore’s character has the rather sinister trait of being a voyeur, watching here neighbours via video cameras going about their lives; Bandera’s Miguel Bain is a very violent man, cutting down people with his gun as soon as look at them; and, heck, the flick even opens with Stallone handing a gun to a guy so he can shoot himself in the head. Yeah, not so many wisecracks here.

But what Assassins is, is a very entertaining, action packed Richard Donner film. He orchestrates some excellent action sequences and fleshes out the characters just enough to give us a little bit more meat to chew on in between the shootouts. The set-pieces are tight and thrilling showing a sense of control much like the assassins would have. Yes, there are some car chases and explosions but the gunfire and fire-fights are much more restrained. They have a brutal impact to them as the assassins go at one another, and anyone else, with silenced pistols and rifles in hotel rooms and apartment complexes. There is also a cool, if little absurd, conversation cum gunfight/car chase between the two assassins in a taxi cab, the two separated by a shield of bullet proof glass and unable to shoot one another.

Overall, Assassins is a worthy, straight-laced and hugely enjoyable Hollywood action movie. It may not be remembered as Stallone’s best but it’s certainly worthy of rediscovery and don’t write it off just because it’s a Hollywood flick with a bunch of big stars in it. Cool action: cool movie.

American Kickboxer 1



AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1 (1991)

Directed by: Frans Nel
Screenplay: Emil Kolbe
Starring: John Barrett, Keith Vitali & Terry Norton

Despite having the most unfortunate name in action cinema, BJ Quinn (Barrett) used to be the world champ at kickboxing. But after his temper tantrums land him in jail for a year for the accidental death of someone, he returns to society to rebuild his career and himself. Trouble is, he’s still a bit of an asshole so when he alienates his long suffering lady friend (Norton) and a fellow kickboxer buddy (Vitali), he goes off into solitude to think about things, get through some training montages and come back and beat the loud mouth, funny accented bad guy Jacques Denard (Brad Morris).

American Kickboxer 1 (yep, it actually had the 1 in the title much like Loaded Weapon 1, only this flick isn’t a spoof: well not intentionally anyway) is not one of the better kickboxing films from the era that saw a deluge of action flicks released with the word kickboxer in the title: American Kickboxer King, College Kickboxer, Kickboxer from Hell. All of which were presumably attempting to cash in on the success of Jean Claude Van Damme’s classic Kickboxer. American Kickboxer 1 unfortunately features none of that film’s fun or exciting fight scenes but is instead a rather tedious and often very camp affair. Barrett’s unfortunately monikered BJ is just a dull, arrogant hero and seems to be posing in a catalogue model style manner whenever he is in a scene that doesn’t require fighting. Bad guy Brad Morris (Steel Dawn) has some undistinguishable accent, wears a pink skirt in the fight ring (no, really!) and the only move he seems to display when fighting is hitting himself repeatedly in the head: so how is this guy the new world champion of kickboxing? Keith Vitali (No Retreat No Surrender 3) isn’t so bad and shows he has the moves with some fierce kicking moves but, as are the other fighters, is let down by uninspired and dreary fight choreography that, to be fair, is refreshingly non-flashy but rarely whips up any excitement.

Dull and only worth checking out if you have to see every 1990s American kickboxing flick (which it seems I have to). Followed by a sequel To the Death again starring Barrett and also a non-related sequel actually called American Kickboxer 2 featuring Evan Lurie: both of which, no doubt, I will now have to check out. Damnit.

TC 2000



TC 2000 (1993)

Written and Directed by: T.J. Scott
Starring: Billy Blanks, Bobbie Philips, Jalal Merhi and Bolo Yeung

Before Billy Blanks became the world’s number one Tae-Bo sensation, he made a succession of fairly entertaining martial arts flicks. Two of them were of a sci-fi theme and co-starred the Middle Eastern Steven Seagal, Jalal Merhi. TC 2000 is the less successful of the two (the other being the more entertaining Expect No Mercy) and it’s a shame as it could have been a solid little sci-fi actioner.

Sometime in the future mankind has been driven underground, with lawless gangs patrolling the surface. To maintain justice a special police force has been created who go by the name of Trackers. The two top trackers are Jason Storm (Blanks) and Zoey Kinsella (Phillips), who are renowned for their gifted martial arts. When Kinsella is mysteriously shot dead while pursing outlaw, Nick Picasso (Merhi) and his gang, Storm believes she is gone for good. Storm’s boss has other plans for Kinsella’s body, turning her into an all-fighting cyborg: the TC 2000 X. Using his new weapon and forming an alliance with Picasso, Storm’s boss sets out to control the surface world. Storm is outcast from his fellow trackers and sets out to stop Picasso and his cohorts and free Kinsella from her robotic chains. Along the way he joins forces with a Zen-like martial artist, Sumai (Yeung), who aids him in his quest.

It may all sound very confusing (at times it is) but there is very little plot to TC 2000. The thread of storyline there is serves only to frame a relentless number of fights. What plot there is suffers from too many characters. Yeung’s character pops up randomly to fight some bloke now again before his character is finally introduced half way through. It is a little jarring and the film suffers from a lack of coherence. While Blanks will never be seen as a truly gifted actor he is a likeable and energetic screen presence but is hampered with some truly awful dialogue. However, Merhi fairs even worse as the face painted Picasso. Having zero charisma and questionable martial arts skills, he should perhaps stick to producing. Yeung does his usual silent type shtick and is really only there to fight, though it is cool to see him playing a good guy for a change. The futuristic setting is, for want of a better word, lacking, as the whole film seems to have been shot in one abandoned nuclear power plant.

However, the film does have one thing going for it: the fights. There is some kind of scrap or scuffle about every 2 minutes. In fact, the fighting rarely lets up. The fights are crisp and brutal with Blanks proving a worthy martial artist. The final throw down between him and genre stalwart, Matthias Hues (Bounty Tracker), is a full on, martial arts rumble. The curvaceous Bobbie Philips (Back in Action) also holds her own in the fight scenes and is certainly easy on the eye. There is also some decent photography in the fights scenes and the opening sequence, of the Trackers driving around the city, is nicely shot.

TC 2000 is not a complete waste of time, just let down by bad plotting, acting, and some slapdash directing. As a fight film, it is more than adequate and should satisfy any combat junkie. It is the kind of film best watched at one o’clock in the morning when you can’t sleep. Such as I did.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Quantum of Solace



QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

Directed by: Marc Foster
Screenplay: Paul Haggis and Robert Wade & Neal Purvis
Starring: Daniel Craig, Oleg Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric & Judi Dench

So Bond 22 comes along and it really is a case of ho hum. Before I start, I must confess, I’m not a huge Bond fan. I know weird for a dude who loves action films. I mean I’ve enjoyed some of them but I just find it’s a case of its pretty much the same thing every time. Despite what you may have heard about this instalment it’s pretty much the same thing again. Yeah, it’s more serious, the gadgets toned down (though they are still there in the shape of a nifty mobile phone that lets him do all kinds of things) and he only beds one sexy lady (with some refreshingly drastic consequences). But despite the muted palette, the lack of quips and the fact that Bond is on a mission of revenge (we’ve even seen this before in Licence to Kill) it’s still business as usual. Bond is as superhuman as ever, surviving ever increasingly dangerous scenarios and shrugging it off by the next scene; as the film progresses the action becomes more ludicrous, in particular a dogfight which ends in a parachute jump that only people in a Bond film would survive; there is a an evil villain (Amarlic) who is trying to take over a government or the world or something and manages to still have a huge hideout out in the middle of nowhere that gets blown up come the finale; and M gets all flustered with Bond. So yeah, business as usual.



What sets it apart is the slightly more serious tone than other adventures. Bond is working to his own rules (avenging the death of Vesper from Casino Royale) and doesn’t care who he kills on the way. But despite the seriousness of everyone, and the unrelenting po-faced ness of proceedings, QoS stills falls into routine Bond territory. We know exactly how it’s going to end and, as mentioned, there is even a big hideout (granted it is less hi-tech than previous instalments) that Bond has to infiltrate and, of course, blow up. Many are comparing it to the Bourne films in style and execution and while QoS shares similarities in the action department (at least in the opening scenes) and the muted palette, it doesn’t share the emotional undercurrent or relentless pace of a Bourne film. The first 35 minutes is packed full of over-edited action sequences but then QoS slows down to a meandering pace, the characters all soulless shells, us viewers never really caring who is who, what they are doing, and after some time not really bothered if Bond finds the person he is looking for. I was lead to believe QoS was a non stop action film but other than the opening third, the film seemed to drag. The action is no great shakes either. Well it probably is it’s just that filmmakers these days seem to think they have to over edit everything to give it a sense of realism, QoS being a major perpetrator of this crime. The opening car chase is a blitzkrieg of fast edits that dilutes any tension or excitement. Open up the action, let us see it, lets us be involved then we will be excited by the action scenes. To be fair the foot chase cum fight hanging from rafters is pretty good but, again, needed to back off in the crazy edit department.



Craig is good as Bond (and as good as any of the rest) and the foxy Oleg Kurylenko (Hitman) is also good and a refreshingly tough and believable female character for a Bond movie. QoS is not quite the unholy mess its reputation has but is not really that great either. Maybe it’s arty director Marc Foster’s (Monster’s Ball) ‘different’ direction, the over edited action or just that Bond is running out of juice? I don’t know. Bond fans will be split down the middle on this one while other viewers, like me, will come away thinking ‘been there, seen that’ and the action could have been better. Ho hum.

The Day the Earth Stood Still



THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008)

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: David Scarpa
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith

This is a tough call. On the one hand I really enjoyed the new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (DTESS) (a remake of the 1950s sci-fi benchmark), on the other it seemed pretty much pointless, never really adding anything new, and despite being very well made and paced, suffers from the soulless Hollywood machine. Now I’m no advocator of remakes but don’t despise all of them either (the remake of The Hills Have Eyes being a much better film than the original) but with decent remakes like The Omen (yep, I enjoyed it) and The Departed, one always comes away with the feeling, why bother? It was a good or decent film but nothing compared to the original. DTESS suffers the same effect: good, but was it really needed?



Alien Klaatu (Reeves) comes to earth along with his protector robot, Gort, to warn the earth of eradication as we humans are destroying our planet. Befriending foxy scientist Helen Benson (Connelly) and her step son (Smith), Klaatu gives them one chance to convince him not to go ahead with the eradication. So, what is good about the DTESS? Well first off, it is well made, slick, well paced (and mercifully not over edited to ridiculousness) and director Derrickson even whips up some impressive scenes of nervous tension and destruction. The cast aren’t bad either (though Reeves will no doubt receive many oh so funny quips about him being ideal for an emotional alien from much smarter and wittier critics) but the script is perhaps too pedestrian, everything set out in a straightforward manner the characters just pointing us in the right direction to the predictable conclusion. The script also wastes too much time on Benson’s annoying step son, too many scenes of him moaning about his dead father, that he comes across as the typical shoehorned in, he has to learn a message kid in a Hollywood blockbuster. Which is exactly what he is. We never get the sense that the world is ever really in danger, as we spend too much time with a whinging kid. Jaden Smith isn’t bad in the acting department just given a really unsympathetic character. Likewise, John Hamm and John Cleese are completely wasted.



On the flipside, Derrickson handles his first big blockbuster well, making a film that harkens back to how blockbusters were made back in the 80s and 90s. No tricksey editing, the action scenes flow well, the pace never rushed. The original DTESS is also famous for one of movieland’s best robots, Gort. Luckily, the new version of Gort is done well the best scenes in the film featuring him and his capture and incarceration in an underground complex. Effective CGI is used to render Gort and the scene where he is held captive and his red eye follows one of the characters is nerve rackingly good and as good as anything in the original. Having helmed the underrated Hellraiser Inferno and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Derrcikosn knows a thing or two about scaring and this is where the remake of DTESS works best.

In addition, don’t go expecting an action extravaganza like the trailers suggest. This is no Independence Day. There are some impressive scenes of destruction but the film is equally about drama and tension as it about wrecking 18 wheelers and baseball stadiums. DTESS is a fairly decent flick that won’t really have a chance in hell. The fan boys will pick it to pieces, many won’t get past Reeves and yeah it does succumb to bloated Hollywood schmaltz and the easy way out come the final third. However, it’s still got a lot going for it, some great scenes of tension, Gort (who should have been in it way more) and it never resorts to CGI excess. But despite all this dissection and defence, one will no doubt come away (myself included) thinking what was the point? The debate over whether remakes (especially of classics) are worthy continues.


Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Rookie



THE ROOKIE (1990)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Boaz Yakin & Scott Spiegel
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen & Raul Julia

It’s not just a job, it’s a fucking adventure.”

Unfairly bashed and dismissed Eastwood vehicle that is not only choc full of blazing action but is often hilarious and a great send up of the buddy formula action movie and Eastwood’s own tough guy onscreen image. This is Eastwood in action mode and just because he’s having a bit of fun here doesn’t mean the film is any less entertaining than any of his others. In fact, The Rookie is an underrated gem, hard hitting in the action department and featuring a cool laid back performance from the star/director as he gets the chance to crack a wry smile and not take himself so seriously.

The similarities to the Dirty Harry character/films is inevitable as Eastwood once again plays a grizzled cop who does things his way and causes much destruction (to both property and people) as he hunts down evil car theft kingpin Raul Julia. In tow, he has new detective Charlie Sheen who, as is the standard in such flicks, believes everything should be done by the book whereas Eastwood would rather shoot first and ask questions later. But, as is also the norm with such flicks, after some hostility the two begin to respect each other and Sheen adopts to the more tough talking way of police investigating which all leads to one of the best action flicks of the 90s.



Now there is no point in comparing The Rookie to other Eastwood classics such as Unforgiven as this is a completely different kind of film. One should never expect a filmmaker as prolific as Eastwood to always make the same film or always try to reach such lofty aspirations with every film. This is him in light entertainment mode and that is a-ok as films can provide just that: light entertainment. Eastwood also seems to be having a ball here, sending up his tough cop image, dishing out subtle and very funny one liners with aplomb and staging some exhilarating action sequences. Boaz Yakin & Scott Spiegel’s (he of Evil Dead 2) script sparks with quick fire wit, gags often running throughout the entire film and Eastwood getting to utter the classic line (upon seeing a lime green sports car) “Wanna know what a crime is? Whoever defaced that work of art by painting that colour…ought to have his ass removed.” He and Sheen share infectious chemistry, the humour more subtle and adult rather than being rammed own our throats say in the style of Bad Boys 2. Sheen is also on fine form as are the rest of the cast including the late great Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Lara Flynn Boyle, Tom Skerrit and a who’s who of familiar faces that peppered 80s and 90s Hollywood action cinema.



Eastwood and stunt coordinator Terry Leonard stage some impressive action scenes including a multi car pile up that opens the film (which I’m pretty sure Bad Boys 2 nicked), the mother of all bar fights where Sheen goes ape shit on some local bikers, a great running chase/shootout in an airport and quite possibly the best escape from an exploding building ever seen in action cinema. The action comes from the golden era meaning there is no CGI, it all pretty much staged for real and the stars getting satisfyingly bloodied up and tired come the finale. Yeah, it’s often over the top in nature but that’s the fun of action pictures. It doesn’t have to be real to be thrilling and as long as it’s well staged what’s wrong with a couple of cops demolishing a freeway and an airport in order to catch the bad guys?

As with Eastwood’s earlier action picture The Gauntlet (another underrated gem) The Rookie is all about fun, lots of cool action and some refreshingly adult humour that will bring a smile to your face as you watch things blow up. This is not Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby or even the original Dirty Harry (all great films by the way) but probably Eastwood’s best straight action picture and an absolute hoot. And if you can’t enjoy it for the action packed fun it is, well then you ought to have your ass removed.

Best of the Best 2



BEST OF THE BEST 2 (1993)

Directed by: Robert Radler
Screenplay: Max Strom & John Allen Nelson
Starring: Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee & Ralph Moeller

Best of the Best 2 is a surprisingly good early 90s action/martial arts film that not only tops its predecessor but delivers mucho full on action. The original Best of the Best was a decent tournament fighting flick about an American martial arts team overcoming the odds to take part and triumph in a martial arts contest. Routine but well made and featuring some cool fights it also featured Roberts uttering the great line “I’m gonna take your head off” before going toe-to-toe with an opponent. He returns along with Phillip Rhee and Chris Penn for a slicker and far superior sequel. This time around the tournament is an illegal fighting arena in a Las Vegas hotel. Fighters battle each other aiming for a chance to fight reigning champion Brakus (Moeller), who has a knack of pretty much killing everyone he fights. Hot shot Penn enters the tournament and gets to fight Brakus but, wouldn't you know it, he ends up dead. So in true sequel fashion his good buddies Roberts and Rhee vow revenge but not before some intense training out in the desert with action stalwart Sonny (Billy from Predator) Ladham.

With a bigger budget and more nasty bad guys to play with returning director Robert Radler ups the stakes to deliver a violent, vicious sequel. Mixing the fighting tournament film with a traditional action film means we get plenty of action in and outside the ring. The tournament fights might be short and sharp but always crisp and brutal and feature the novel visual of a gladiator theme: Brakus believes he is a true warrior so dresses up and fights like it was old Roman times. On the outside there is plenty of action as Roberts and Rhee try to avoid capture by the bad guys leading to some explosive confrontations in a house and at a secluded ranch. The action is slick, punchy and mixes martial arts and gunplay effectively. The training sequences are fun if a little short as the gruff, tough and often drunk Landham trains the fighters to take on the seemingly invincible Brakus.



The flick is all slick and grit but not ashamed to tip over into comic book proportions with the action and the bad guys chewing up everything in sight. This all adds to the fun and the stars play it straight, kicking ass and taking names. As well as the leads and Moeller hamming it up big time as the evil, vain Brakus there is fine support from genre regulars Meg Foster, Patrick Kilpatrick, Simon Rhee, Claire Stansfield, Kane Hodder and even Mr Las Vegas himself Wayne Newton. The best has to be Kilpatrick who erupts into violent madness at the slightest thing such as one of his henchmen tapping him on the shoulder: “Don’t you EVER touch me.” Priceless

Excellent, well made action film and the best of the series. Amazingly it stretched to four instalments though Roberts and Radler jumped ship after this entry with Rhee continuing on and even directing parts 3 and 4.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Stunts (aka The Deadly Game)



STUNTS (aka THE DEADLY GAME) (1977)

Directed by: Mark L. Lester
Screenplay: Dennis Johnson
Starring: Robert Forster, Fiona Lewis & Ray Sharkey

Neat little flick about some weirdo who is killing the stuntmen on a currently lensing action film. It’s up to stunt coordinator Robert Forster to find out who is offing his men, though he still seems to find time to bed a nosy reporter (Lewis) and do pretty much all the stunts himself. This very early offering from future Commando director Lester, is harmless, ridiculous fun buoyed by some cool old school stunts. The pace is a little too slow to really whip up any excitement and the ‘acting’ between all the stunts is often painfully embarrassing. A very young Robert Forster does not look comfortable in his gruff, tough and very sexist role as a stunt coordinator and there are also early appearances from Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner) and B-movie stalwart Richard Lynch (loads of B-movies).

Pretty much a glorified TV-movie, complete with groovy seventies fashion and cheesy theme song, Stunts offers a few wry digs at Hollywood and the way action pictures were churned out, all the while trying to provide enough stunts to keep the viewer's attention. The stunt work is very dated by today’s standards but it comes from a time when they would pretty much perform the stunts on the fly with very lo-tech equipment. So Lester spices up proceedings with loads of car flips, high-falls and even a pretty dangerous looking fire gag.

It’s all quite tame and silly but it’s a rare flick and interesting to see where the director of action classic benchmark, Commando got his start. And Robert Forster and cars flipping always provides a morsel of entertainment.

Martial Law



MARTIAL LAW (1990)

Directed by: Steve Cohen
Written by: Richard Brandes
Starring: Chad McQueen, Cynthia Rothrock & David Carradine

What do you get if you combine Steve McQueen’s son, the high-kicking Cynthia Rothrock, Bill from Kill Bill, the great Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez (and several other chop-socky stalwarts) and Subzero from The Running Man…well…err…Martial Law of course.

L.A cop Sean Thompson (McQueen) is nicknamed ‘Martial Law’ on account of his deadly kung-fu skills. He and partner/lover, Billie (Rothrock) are renowned for bringing in the bad guys but not before they break a few bones with their nifty moves. Sean’s younger brother, Michael (Andy McCutcheon) is dabbling on the wrong side of the law with top bad guy, Dalton Rhodes (Carradine). Sean attempts to sway his brother from a lawless lifestyle but to no avail. Michael soon finds himself in over his head and before long turns up dead at the hands of Dalton. It’s then a one-way ticket to Revenge City for Sean, and with Billie in tow, ‘Martial Law’ starts dealing out some kung-fu flavoured justice.

Martial Law isn’t a bad little film but is nothing special either. As generic as they come, it follows the template of late 80’s, early 90’s American kung-fu flicks: a cop/hero who is a gifted martial artist (and either works at or runs a martial arts school), is out for revenge (due to either his brother/father/uncle/pet hamster being killed) against the local kingpin: who is also a gifted martial artist. Things bristle along in a predictable manner, saved by frequent bursts of action. The fights are fairly energetic, if uninspiring, the standout being a scrap between Rothrock and Benny the Jet.

Chad McQueen (Firepower) is ok as the hero: neither acting up a storm nor coming across too bland. Though he has obviously trained in martial arts, he is not the most graceful of fighters (looks like he would have made a better boxer) and is left in the dust by Rothrock. She performs well, this being one of her earlier roles, and displays a gift for martial arts. Carradine (Kill Bill) is as slick and slimy as ever and seems to be having fun playing the intimidating Rhodes. Steve Cohen’s (Tough & Deadly) direction and Richard Brandes’ (Martial Law 2) script are both by the numbers and the film does suffer from having a slight made-for-TV look about it. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is spotting all the B-movie action star cameos (fun for martial arts fans and movie nerds like myself at least). James Lew (Mission of Justice), Jeff Pruitt (Sword of Honour), Tony Longo (Eraser), Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez (Dragons Forever) and even the late great Professor Toru Tanaka (The Running Man) all pop up at various intervals to either fight or just generally get in the hero’s way. Cool.

I bought this film for 50p from a charity store and it is an older vhs copy. This is evident in the fight involving nunchuks being completely cut out. One second two characters are squaring up to fight with said weapons, the next moment one is lying dead on the ground with no fight having taken place. Martial Law was a casualty of the no nunchuks scenes rule enforced by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). This law was apparently imposed because a football hooligan once used them at a match (or something) and many films were subsequently chopped up in order to elimate such scenes. This is a shame as it is very jarring when a scene suddenly disappears from a film and was another case of the BBFC overreacting (banning The Exorcist for 25 years…come on). I believe the nunchuk ban has now been lifted, fact fans.

So, if you fancy a beer and pizza and something to watch, then Martial Law provides adequate entertainment. Best thing to do is probably watch it with another avid kung fu fan and spot all the cool cameos. Martial Law was followed by Martial Law 2: Undercover (aka Karate Cop), which starred Jeff Wincott and Cynthia Rothrock (damn you movie nerdiness…damn you).

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Transporter 2



TRANSPORTER 2 (2005)

Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Jason Statham, Alessandro Gassman, Amber Valetta & Jason Flemying

Bubblegum action hits full force in a fast, fun and frivolous sequel to the hit, cult classic The Transporter. This time around Frank Martin (Statham) has a legitimate job, transporting the kid of a rich couple back and forth from school and various other activities. Being a rich couple, their kid is the target of some local (and also very rich) psychotics who kidnap the boy and use him to unleash a deadly virus. Frank being the ever professional he is, swears to get the kid back and does so in ever increasingly outlandish, violent and gravity defying ways.



Transporter 2 is slick action fun, cramming in more set pieces than most action films put together and affirming that Statham really is the new action kid on the block. He oozes star charisma, bulldozes his way through the bad guys and shows he is the closest thing we have to a bona fide action star since the glory days of the 1980s. Now this sequel has been criticized for jettisoning the grit of the original and pushing everything to comic book extremes, therefore making it inferior. In general, I would agree (though I would never call the original gritty) but Transporter 2 is still great fun and possibly even as good as its predecessor. It takes everything that was cool from the original (Statham, loads of whacked out action, that funny French guy) and just mixes it up a little with a bit more comedy, loads more ludicrous stunts and much more sun and sand. Shifting the action to Miami gives the flick a very glossy look and while Part 2 is essentially the same as Part 1, it forms its own identity with a slightly different style. While the French guy (Francois Berleand) is somewhat underused and badly shoehorned in this time (but still funny), director Leterrier still whips everything up into a fast moving, adrenaline surging froth all the while keeping the fun nature of the original.



The action is what this series is all about and this entry doesn’t disappoint. It varies from the brilliant and brutal to the downright ludicrous. On one end of the spectrum there are the tightly crafted fight scenes (the boat fight, the garage fight, the awesome hose fight), the glossy gunplay (the gunfight at the doctors), and loads of vehicular mayhem (the Audi chase, the Jet Ski bit). At the other end of the spectrum there is the complete barmy, from the mad finale set on a spiralling out of control jet, to a helicopter being blown up with handguns to that infamous bit with the bomb underneath the car. Now the film never attempts to be realistic (and the original certainly wasn’t either in terms of credible action physics) but this is all part of the fun. Many will hate the over-the-top nature but just as many will watch the Transporter flicks for this nature. Personally, I enjoy the hell out of the Transporter flicks and like all different kinds of action. If I want hard hitting, realistic action, I’ll watch a Bourne film and if I want stunt heavy craziness with a dash of creative martial arts, I’ll watch a Transporter flick. Though, yeah, the bit with the bomb under the car is maybe a little much even for me.

Still, great, action packed madness and any flick that manages to feature a sexy, lingerie wearing female assassin brandishing two high powered handguns is alright by me. Roll on Transporter 3.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Musketeer



THE MUSKETEER (2001)

Directed by: Peter Hyams
Screenplay: Gene Qunitano
Starring: Justin Chambers, Mena Suvari, Tim Roth & Stephen Rea

Hmmmm, The Musketeer. An interesting oddity at best, a pretty rubbish flick at worst. Now this ‘interpretation’ is by no means for the Alexandre Dumas fan club or those expecting a faithful page to screen transition of The Three Musketeers. In fact, the three musketeers barely make an appearance, making way for Justin Chamber’s know-it-all; I’ll do all the fighting D’artagan. Mix in a ton of, it has to be said: excellent, Hong Kong style action and then completely waste a cast that includes Suvari, Rea and the great Catherine Deveuve and you get the mish-mash version of a classic story. Not fondly remembered by many, The Musketeer is not a complete write-off but never quite gels with its hip, new, funky reinvention of a bunch of sword fighters protecting the Queen of France.



Now comparing it the literary classic is a waste of time (and best left to those who will have a field day ripping it apart and pointing out how the book never featured gravity defying martial arts flavoured sword fighting) as the flick is obviously trying to put a new spin on the well known story. Funking everything up a little and adding Hong Kong style action may have been a legitimate attempt to do something different but comes of more like some producers jumping on the kung fu popularity bandwagon and throwing it into the pot to get more teenagers to watch the flick. In a lot of ways it doesn’t work, as one will often think why are these French dudes in the 17th century busting out Once Upon a Time China (OUATIC) moves. Speaking of that film, the biggest crime The Musketeer makes is lifting the finale from OUATIC wholesale and using it as its own finale. That great fight in OUATIC with Jet Li jumping around ladders and using them as makeshift weapons, is copied almost frame for frame here as Justin Chambers and Tim Roth (well their stunt doubles no doubt) duke it out. Once again it’s a great action scene but feels stale as we already know it’s been done in a far superior movie.

However, if you can go with the 17th Century martial arts/stunt filled vibe, then there is something to enjoy about The Musketeer. The action is by Xin Xin Xiong (the tattooed bad ass from Tsui Hark’s The Blade and, wouldn’t you know it, OUATIC) and he and his team craft some exhilarating set pieces including a sword fight in a bar and a stunt packed horse and carriage chase. The direction is also crisp which is no surprise coming from Peter Hyams, though The Musketeer is no where as accomplished or as much fun as some of his other flicks such as 2010, Timecop and Sudden Death. So we have a load of decent Hong Kong styled action, a ho-hum retelling of a classic and stars who are either underused or never convince as the dashing heroes they need to be in a movie that can’t quite gel everything together. Having seen it a second time, I enjoyed it more than the first time around but if you want to see The Three Musketeers watch one of the umpteen other versions and if you simply want to watch cool Hong Kong kung fu action then watch, well, a cool Hong Kong kung fu flick, like OUATIC.



Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Mechanik



THE MECHANIK (2005)

Directed by: Dolph Lundgren
Screenplay: Bryan Edward Hill
Starring: Dolph Lundgren & Ben Cross

What’s the plan?”
Kill them all…”

Mr Lundgren’s second directorial offer is a no nonsense, tough as nails revenge flick as he goes hunting for those who killed his family. A former Russian Spetnatz now working as a mechanic, Nick Cherenko (Lundgren) gets a second chance to get the killers of his family when they kidnap the daughter of a rich business woman. Sent into deepest Russia to get the girl back, Cherenko has one thing on his mind: revenge. Teaming up with a plucky Brit (Cross) and his crew they nab the girl and set off for the border with some very nasty men on their trail. This of course leads to one epic, violent showdown.



Taking the reins of his movie career himself, Lundgren has switched to direction as well as starring and is delivering some of his best action movie work to date. The Mechanik (aka The Russian Specialist) is probably his grittiest work as a director yet. The story and set up are old hat but the execution is stylish, riveting and often very violent. As a man of few words, Cherenko tears through the screen, obliterating anyone who has anything to do with his family’s death and the kidnapping of the girl. Cross adds the human element as the chatty Brit but is never reduced to comedy sidekick, having to take up arms himself and avenge the death of someone he cares for. The gritty edge means violence is shown in all its ugliness and despite the slick camerawork, the flick has a down and dirty vibe as we know some very bad things are gonna happen to some very bad people.

The action is shot with verve all extended gunplay and shotgun action (a few fisticuffs thrown in here and there) and the final twenty minutes sees Cherenko and his crew hunting down the bad guys in a village in a tense and ballistic fashion. There could have perhaps been a bit more action and vengeance but it’s a noble attempt to add a bit more drama to the revenge flick formula, Lundgren giving us a chance to know the people we are following through this bloodbath. Overall, another top notch effort from star and director Lundgren and along with The Defender and Missionary Man, he is showing himself to be a quality action filmmaker. It’s also a great revenge flick.




Thursday, 20 November 2008

Never Back Down



NEVER BACK DOWN (2008)
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Screenplay: Chris Hauty
Starring: Sean Faris, Amber Heard & Dijmon Honsou

Hollywood strikes again, jumping on the bandwagon and rebranding it for the teen market. Never Back Down takes the current trend of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)/UFC style fighting and wraps it up in another ho-hum Karate Kid plot, throwing in loads of glossy camerawork and editing but not much MMA or much else for that matter. We’ve seen it a million times before: kid moves to new school; gets beat up; trains with older master (who has troubled past); becomes gifted fighter; beats up original kid who beat him up and wins the girl and love, respect and admiration of everyone around him. At least Never Back Down doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not but with very little fight action and way too many training montages, it’s certainly nothing to get excited about.




The film is certainly well made and the acting is decent as well but the main character played by Sean Faris just becomes an annoying, sulky so and so after a while, rather than the underdog we want to root for. The entire film is just too glossy for its own good, coming across more as an extended music video/Pepsi commercial than a feature film. Cliché is piled upon cliché from the struggles Faris has with his single parent mum, to his irritating, ridiculously haired ‘comedy’ sidekick to the oh so predictable finale and outcome. The film is so drab in its plotting and familiarity that the sun soaked visuals and bikini clad babes become boring after a while. Well, maybe not the bikini clad babes. The bright spots are leading lady Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) who shows she should be in better stuff than this and Faris’s relationship with his onscreen brother which is handled in a refreshingly mature manner.



The fight action is no great shakes either and there is very little of it. Over edited and too much tricksy camerawork ruin any fluidity or excitment the fights might have. If they had just been allowed to play out and shot in a style that lets us see what is happening then Never Back Down could have been a fun fight film. But as is de-rigour, posing and cutting the fight to a trendy rock song is the name of the game. Shame really, as Never Back Down would have been a good showcase for some MMA.

Not an unholy mess but not very good either, this is definitely for the teen crowd (and I suppose they need movies too) and anyone who loves MTV. Action and cinema fans should just go back and watch The Karate Kid, Kickboxer and, hell, even No Retreat No Surrender again instead.

True Vengeance



TRUE VENGEANCE (1997)

Directed by: David Worth
Written by: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Daniel Berhardt, Beverly Johnson & Miles O’Keeffe

Flick opens with two snipers, heavily camoflauged up, stalking through the Columbian jungle. Sent to take out some major bad dude, Griffin (Bernhardt) hesitates as women and children become involved but his partner (O’Keeffe) doesn’t and guns down everyone before is himself shot by Griffin. Many years later, Griffin is a happy single father celebrating his young daughter’s birthday. But as is the nature of being a top class assassin his past comes back to haunt him, his daughter kidnapped by some evil Yakuza who want him to kill for them. Griffin, however, isn’t going to comply so easily and geared and ready for action sets out to destroy the Yakuza and get his kid back. Yep, its Commando rip-off number 137.




Despite the over familiar plot and standard set up for revenge, True Vengeance is actually one of the better Commando variations. There are a few sub plots thrown in here and there (cops on Griffin’s trail, O’Keeffe not really dead and back to kill Griffin) but it’s all really an excuse for lots of ass kicking and surprisingly well staged action. Apart from an uneventful motorcycle chase, the action scenes hit hard and frequently incorporating lots of gunplay, sword fights and some impressive martial arts action. The pace rarely lags meaning we are never too far away from an action scene whether it’s a raid on Griffin’s house, a shootout at a strip club or a hard hitting fight in a tattoo parlour. Shot well, never over edited and with loads and loads of bad guys getting killed, the action is what this movie is all about. Bernhardt is a whiz in the fight department and while the fights aren’t comparable to Hong Kong style fights, they are fluid in execution and feature some impressive moves and takedowns. In fact, True Vengeance is a proper action film delivering exactly what we want (loads of action) and frequently.



Bernhardt (Bloodsport 2) is a likeable hero if not the greatest actor in the world but spends most of his time kicking, butting heads and shooting guns which he does very well. O’Keeffe (Marked Man) is good, slimy fun complete with bad mid-90s ponytail and there is quality support from George Kee Cheung, Roger Yuan and Jonathan Lutz. Director Worth (Lady Dragon) keeps everything moving fast; the camera often whirling through scenes and throws in loads of cool slow motion into the action that the film never really has a chance to lag even when it becomes all kinds of silly come the last 15 minutes. Kudos to him for sticking to his guns and stuffing the flick full of cool action. The jungle scene that opens the film is also pretty cool.

The 1990s was awash with straight-to-video action flicks like this, often starring Jean Claude Van Damme knock-offs like Bernhardt (though he did go on to be in The Matrix Reloaded and starred in the surprisingly good Bloodsport 2) and True Vengeance is one of the best. Doesn’t break any new ground but does so with bones, tables and glass, and if you are at all disappointed with Segal’s recent direct-to-DVD output then check out this flick as this is how low budget action should be done.

Hypersonic



HYPERSONIC (2002)

Directed by: Philip Roth
Screenplay: Philip Roth & Sean Wells
Starring: Antonio Sabato Jr, Adam Baldwin & Amandah Reyne

Ace fighter pilots take part in an around the world race at the chance of winning $25 million dollars. Flying state of the art jets they race at high velocity attempting to dodge dangerous weather conditions, the risk of blacking out and smashing into each other. Brothers Grant and Kevin Levine (Sabato Jr & Michael Sutton) are one team taking part in the race trying to make up for a past race that resulted in a mid-air crash and the death of several people. On the ground, the race is being televised by the greedy Bannon (Baldwin) who in the need to boost ratings, ups the risks of the race placing the pilots lives in jeopardy.

Produced by low budget studio UFO (Unified Film Organization), Hypersonic is typical of many of their flicks: crammed with loads of CGI action and cheesy plotting. If you are into aviation action then Hypersonic will give you a kick as there are loads of planes zipping about, crashing into one another and generally blowing up. All realized with CGI, the aircraft action scenes are well constructed, often exciting and the CGI isn’t all that bad. It also lends a kind of sci-fi feel to the flick. The action is often ambitious with jets exploding mid-air and even racing through the streets of big cities. The arial scenes are exciting if never realistic and Hypersonic at least delivers full throttle high-flying action.

The acting and dialogue is serviceable for this type of flick with Baldwin being the best actor onboard. Things inevitably take on a cheesy and gung-ho approach as proceedings progress but, hey, that is the nature of these type of low rent action flicks. If you are not into seeing jets twist, turn and crash then Hypersonic is only going to disappoint as there is no hand-to-hand combat or gunplay. This is strictly for the aviation crowd. UFO has made some fun action flicks, often involving giant snakes or sharks or some other monstrosity, and Hypersonic is overall one of their average efforts. I suggest picking up one their giant shark movies, they’re always good.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Death and Life of Bobby Z



THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z (2007)

Directed by
: John Herzfeld
Screenplay: Bob Krakower & Allen Lawrence
Starring: Paul Walker, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Wilde, Jason Flemying & Joaquin De Almeida

Bobby Z is dead. Sort of. The real Bobby Z, an infamous Californian drug dealer, is presumed dead. Enter Tim Kearny (Walker) the spitting image of Z and a three time screw up now holed up in a maximum security prison. With a biker gang baying for his blood both inside and outside the prison, Kearny is given a second chance at freedom if he poses as Bobby Z in order to infiltrate a notorious Mexican dug cartel and rescue the captured partner of cop Gruzsa (Fishburne). But as is the nature of such undertakings, things don’t go smoothly for Kearny/Z meaning he has to flee, kid in tow, with all manner of Mexican bad guys, biker dudes and shifty cops on his tale.



A sparky little action thriller that always entertains even though it never finds the right balance between comedy and serious, Bobby Z is given a boost by some game performances and some cracking action scenes. Director John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley and the underrated 15 Minutes) baths the action in sun drenched vistas and keeps the pace zipping along no matter how convoluted or ridiculous proceedings become. Kearny/Z’s predicament seems to take on ever increasingly unlikely turns, the hard edge the film starts with soon evaporating to make way for lots of bit characters, random plots twists and outlandish action. Based on a book by Don Winslow the screenwriters have obviously exercised a lot of story in order to meet the scant 90 minute run time. An extra 20 minutes or so would have been good for character development and a bit more time on the blossoming relationship between Kearny and the kid he has in tow. Flick would have been better sticking to a serious tone as it tends to fall apart in the more comedy/lighter scenes. However, when the action is onscreen and the tone more tense, Herzfeld gets it right meaning Bobby Z is an often entertaining, if quirky, thriller.

The action scenes are well crafted and often tense in execution and Walker certainly throws himself into the action. The fights are tough and tight, all blocks and take downs with a confrontation between a bunch of Mexican drug thugs in a beach house being a particularly intense and satisfying fight scene. In fact, things build to such an intense state in that scene the film almost blows it with the comedy-esque hi-jinks of the following scenes, the wandering tone diluting the serious action that has come before. Still, for the most part Bobby Z is undemanding, well crafted action entertainment with some fine performances from all the cast.

Queen's Messenger



QUEENS MESSENGER (2000)

Directed by: Mark Roper
Screenplay: Harry Alan Towers & Peter Jobin
Starring: Gary Daniels, Teresa Sherrer & David Westhead

Low budget James Bond type adventure that’s high on action but not much else. Lumbered with a by the numbers plot, lethargic action sequences and an alarming amount of unconvincing accents, this Gary Daniels vehicle never really had a chance. The constant referencing to his character being British (using well worn phrases such as crumpet when referencing a hot woman or 2-nil after killing two bad guys: yeah, cause us Brits talk like this all the time) becomes irritating and laughable. We know he’s British and that he’s a British secret agent/commando person, stop ramming it down our throats. Daniels is in fact British but the filmmakers have made him sound less so, his voice even dubbed on occasion. So they are making a British action movie about a British super commando but have made him sound less British than he usually does so he as has to use a bunch of stereotypical slogans and phrases to convince the international market he is British? Brilliant.

On top of all this the pace is really slow despite the makers packing in a lot of action. But apart from one nifty action scene near the end the stunts and gunplay never really ignite, which is surprising as director Mark Roper usually makes fun and lively low budget action films (Warhead, Operation Delta Force 3). Daniels has a couple of fun fights and the action is certainly ambitious in scope (not least a chase/duel between some armoured vehicles) but is put together in such a momentum deadening way the thrills just aren’t there. It’s a shame as Queen’s Messenger should have been a fun little action romp but is unfortunately another dull, Eastern European shot, let’s stop a bunch of terrorists blowing something up, direct to video affair that now no doubt clogs up various low rent cable channels.

Gary Daniels was always one of the better 1990s action stars it’s just Queen’s Messenger isn’t one of his better vehicles. Check out Cold Harvest, Recoil and Bloodmoon for some quality Daniels action entertainment.


Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Pure Danger



PURE DANGER (1996)

Directed by: C. Thomas Howell
Written by: Joseph John Barmettler & William Applegate Jr
Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Terri Ann Linn, Marcus Chong & Leon

C. Thomas Howell stars in and directs the quirky action thriller, Pure Danger. Produced under the PM Entertainment banner, the story deals with paroled criminal, Johnny (Howell) and his girlfriend, Becky (Linn) making off with some stolen diamonds to live a better life. However, things don’t go smoothly as every gangster going is after said jewels and will stop at nothing, including much vehicular destruction, to get them.



Basically True Romance mixed with a little Reservoir Dogs and a good dollop of standard PM Entertainment car chase action, Pure Danger is a very hit and miss affair but, overall, entertaining. Howell juggles the role of director and star reasonably well (having done the same on another PM film, The Big Fall) but wears the hat of director more confidently. Creative camera angles, a fast pace and some exhilarating action help give the film a momentum all of its own. The dialogue is not as effective, the script peppered with sub-par Tarantino talk. The constant swearing and racial slurs eventually just seem lame and vulgar rather than witty dissections of the characters saying them. The acting is suitably over the top, though the comedy doesn’t always sit well with the bombastic action. The running gag of the twin henchman always playing games like Paper, Rock, Scissors is amusing, whereas the joke about one of the bad guys falling asleep during car chases just doesn’t work.

The photography by Ken Blakey is shot with a creative eye and there is a cool riff on the Reservoir Dogs torture scene. The action is of a high standard, including several gunfights and no less than 4 car chases. Handled by stunt co-ordinator, Spiro Razatos, the chases feature jaw dropping stunts with the finale cramming in enough car carnage for several films. With a neat twist ending, Pure Danger is a fun romp that fails in its aspiration to be a cool Taratinoesque (he has a lot to answer for) flick but succeeds in being a cool slice of action kookiness.