Sunday, 17 May 2009

Underground



UNDERGROUND (2007)

Directed by: Chee Keong Cheung
Written by: Chee Keong Cheung & Oliver Morran
Starring: Mark Strange, Joey Ansah & Danny John Jules

The tournament fighting flick makes a welcome return with Chee Keong Cheung’s Underground. A low budget British offering featuring a multi national cast, Underground makes no bones about what it is: a full on, straight forward fight flick. Now the plot may not be the most over complicated or challenging but this is to the movie’s benefit as things are kept simple and the fights unfold at a rapid pace. Twelve fighters compete in an underground fighting tournament for a cash price of £500, 000. Yeah, we’ve seen this a million times before but Underground unfolds in a less than familiar manner. The filmmakers pull some refreshing twists and turns out of the bag in terms of who wins and who loses. Just because we get to know a certain character or because a character shows positive traits doesn’t necessarily mean they are the ones to get through to the next round. All the action movie stereotypes are there but they don’t necessarily take the journey that is expected of these stereotypes. This is a refreshing approach and will often have you wondering who will actually make it to the final.



On top of this Underground is heaven for fight fans. We are rarely five minutes away from a fight and while they start off a bit mundane the choreography and brutality of the fights increase in creativity and excitement, climaxing in a barnstorming weapons fight and a brutal one-on-one finale. The fights are crisp and clean using each fighter’s skill to effect and are shot and cut in a fashion where we can enjoy what is happening. The weapons fight is especially effective in that it’s three individual fights cut together flawlessly to become one big fight. Great fighters such as Mark Strange (The Medallion), Joey Ansah (Bourne Ultimatum) and Liang Yang get to strut their stuff in series of brutal one-on-one fights.



As mentioned, action fans will love this while those who prefer a little more character interaction and plot development may be disappointed. The acting is occasionally ropey though the main cast perform well for such a low budget film even if the character development is not the most sophisticated. But Underground more than makes up for this with the unpredictable turns it takes in terms of the characters progressing through the fight tournament. And at the end of the day, Underground is a martial arts action movie and for such a low budget British movie, is a pretty damn good one. Old school in its approach, stylish in its execution and high kicking happy in its action delivery, Underground is great fun.

Streets of Fire



STREETS OF FIRE (1984)

Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill & Larry Gross
Starring: Michael Pare, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan & Willem Dafoe

By all accounts, Streets of Fire shouldn’t work (and I’m sure for some, it doesn’t). With its rock & roll attitude rammed down your throat, dialogue that veers from the deliciously hard boiled to the ridiculously campy and Willem Dafoe decked out in what seems to be black chest waders meant for fishing, it’s no wonder Streets of Fire found it’s audience as a cult film, admirers championing it for all the reasons just mentioned. They are surely the reasons I love it (well, except for Dafoe’s waders!) and with a rocking soundtrack, some full on action and director Hill at least attempting for something different, Streets of Fire, well, just rocks.




Set in a sort of alternate hybrid between the 1950s and 1980s, Streets of Fire tells the simple tale of Tom Cody (Pare) who returns home to rescue his one time flame, Ellen Aim (Lane) from the clutches of the evil Raven (Dafoe) and his biker gang. Cody sets off into the night, with a rag-tag bunch of helpers, to rescue Ellen and get her back to safety so she can continue belting out tunes such as Nowhere Fast and Tonight is What it Means to be Young at the local club. Action and mucho cool Ry Cooder composed music unfolds.

Opening at break neck pace with rock & roll number Nowhere Fast, Streets of Fire sets its intentions right off the bat: this is a rock & roll movie and if you don’t like it, get the hell out of the way. Sexy Diane Lane certainly provides the moves if not the voice as Ellen Aim and no sooner has she finished her number she is kidnapped by 50s biker on acid Raven, leading to Cody to show up and act all kinds of tough. Flick switches into rescue and chase mode, as Cody rescues her and they set off through the city pursued by Raven and his gang. Tough talk and posing abounds, the cast getting into the whole groovy vibe of proceedings and despite the dialogue not always hitting home in the tough manner it is supposed to, Streets of Fire still delivers enough rock & roll grit and explosive action, one can’t help but be propelled by its sense of cool.



Not quite the Rocky Horror Picture Show or a straight forward action movie, Streets of Fire was perhaps Walter Hill’s attempt to fuse his love of tough action movies (the guy is certainly known for them: The Driver, 48 Hours, Red Heat) with a love of rock & roll. A sort of throwback to 50s rebel movies the movie certainly has a style and vibe all of its own. There is also some great action, Hill still staging impressive set pieces in amongst the rock numbers, climaxing in a brutally sustained fight between Pare and Dafoe. The music also rocks, the tunes belted out at full throttle in toe tapping style.

A unique experience and film, Streets of Fire is a true one-off and fully deserved of the cult classic status.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine



X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009)

Directed by: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: David Benioff & Skip Woods
Starring: High Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins and Ryan Reynolds

After three X-Men films, Marvel comic book character Wolverine gets his own movie with the star, Hugh Jackman, who made the character come alive returning once again. However, despite a great cast, a huge Hollywood budget and a star on full mega watt capacity, Wolverine is a distinctly lacklustre and in certain parts, shoddy affair. The original X-Men movie trilogy ended on a somewhat damp squib, as Brett Ratner’s rushed and by-the-numbers threequel failed to impress like Bryan Singer’s classy first two instalments. So Hollywood, wanting to keep the X-Men cash cow going, returns to that old get-people-back-to-watch-the-same-thing-again approach by producing a spin off movie that also acts as a prequel to all the films gone before. Wolverine is certainly packed full of comic book characters and big action but ultimately fails to engage with a very run-of-the-mill story.




Set well before the X-Men films, Wolverine sees brothers Logan (Jackman) and Victor (Schreiber) as two ferocious, feral mutants who are recruited to be part of William Stryker’s (Huston) special covert ops team of mutant soldiers. Adapting to the life and role of a soldier/killing machine with ease, the two brothers soon clash and divide when Stryker wants to use his team to go above and beyond the call of duty. Logan flees the team and attempts to settle into a normal life. However, and such is the mechanics of such a formulaic plot, his past comes racing back with Creed now on a one man mission to eradicate all the members of the mutant team and destroy the life Logan has built. In turn, Logan returns to his fighting roots and sets out on a quest for vengeance which takes in his transformation into Wolverine, appearances by some of Marvel’s favourites and a whole heap of dodgy CGI.



On a certain level, Gavin Hood’s (Rendition) film provides requisite entertainment and in certain scenes and sections he handles his first big budget film well. Jackman knows this role inside and out and has excellent back up from Schreiber as the continually snarling Creed. Likewise, it’s cool spotting fan favourite Marvel characters such as Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) and Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Hood also manages to inject proceedings with some extra bite, certain scenes of violence pushing the 12A/PG-13 rating to the max. But these same factors are also the films undoing. Despite featuring heavily in the first half of the flick and Schreiber succulently chewing into the role, Creed ends up being wasted. The big grudge match between him and Logan that is always promised never really appears, despite a few teases, and all but evaporates as their hatred to one another conveiently gets sidetracked to shoe horn in a silly and clumsy ending. Most of the new characters are blink and you’ll miss them roles and while Kitsch certainly makes an impression as Gambit, the filmmakers seem to have diluted the character so much that he is nothing more than just some other long haired good guy. He only uses his trade mark cards once and very briefly. In addition, the brutal impact of some of the earlier scenes and fight sequences is all but eradicated by the time the ridiculous twist driven, CGI overloaded finale comes along.



Danny Huston (30 Days of Night) is a good actor, no doubt, but again is wasted with a role that sees him spitting out cliché after cliché (“You will have your revenge”) and inhabiting a dull and often lifeless Stryker compared to Brian Cox’s menacing and memorable turn as the character in X-Men 2. Unfortunately it is the script that lets a good chunk of the film down. The story of Logan taking vengeance on those he once trusted is hardly original and made even worse by cringe inducing dialogue and a tone that is one minute fierce and full on (the old couple being assassinated) the next over-the-top silly (Wolverine doing a wheelie on a motorcycle as he escapes an exploding building). Then there is the huge amount of dodgy CGI. For a big budget film, certain scenes seem awfully rushed and the effects just don’t gel. On top of this the action doesn’t always deliver either. By no means is it awful and at certain times is bang on (a brutal fight between Logan and Creed in a lumber yard; the helicopter/jeep bit) but other times over-edited and over CGI’d. A cool sequence in New Orleans starts of well with characters thrown through walls, explosions going off and characters flying through the air in slow-mo before ending abruptly with Wolverine slashing up a metal ladder with the most unconvincing and unintentionally funny CGI. Likewise, the final battle. This should have let action man Scott Adkins (Undisputed 2) cut loose (as bad dude, Weapon XI) but is instead buried under terrible teleporting CGI and unnecessary spectacle. What is wrong with just letting characters duke it out, fist-on-fist, now and again?



Wolverine is not a complete disaster. As mentioned, Hood does pretty well for his first big budget film infusing some scenes with grit and substantial emotion but loses grip with a screenplay buckling under character and predictability fatigue, and no doubt a fair amount of studio pressure. But Wolverine is overall disappointing and could have been so much more. If the story had focused on the Logan/Creed grudge match and jettisoned a lot of the extraneous characters (though mention should got to Kevin Durand who has a memorable scene as the Blob) and not overdone the shoddy CGI, then Wolverine could have been the lean, mean beast it was supposed to be.

Alien Agent



ALIEN AGENT (2007)

Directed by: Jesse Johnson
Written by: Vlady Pildysh
Starring: Mark Dacascos, Billy Zane, Dominique Vandenberg & Kim Coates

While certainly not groundbreaking and in more than one instance a little rough around the edges, Alien Agent is nevertheless enjoyable sci-fi action hokum that is packed with a fair amount of gun blasting, shit exploding entertainment. Some nasty aliens have landed on earth and want to claim the planet as their own due to their own planet dying and withering away. The bad aliens are led by Bill Zane (obviously collecting a pay cheque) and an incredibly foxy babe (Amelia Cooke). Handily the aliens take on human form and are pursued by Mark Dacascos, a sort of alien cop who has come to save earth and pretty much blow up anything that gets in his way.



Alien Agent is B-movie all the way and could have been a whole better if it weren’t for the terrible dialogue (characters stating the bloody obvious left, right and centre) and if the momentum of the barnstorming opening sequence had been maintained throughout. Still, Alien Agent does exude a lot of low key charm. Jesse Johnson is an old hat at the action game having been a stunt co-ordinator and 2nd unit director on some of Hollywood biggest films (War of the Worlds, T3). Lately he has turned to directing and has churned out a number of low budget, high-impact action and sci-fi films: some good (Pit Fighter), some not so (The Last Sentinel). Alien Agent falls in between and knowing that the concept is old hat and often ridiculous, Johnson crams proceedings with good old fashioned do-it-for-real, CGI free stunts and action. An over-the-top car chase/gun fight/martial arts duel opens the flick in great fashion and introduces the audience to the indestructible nature of the aliens. From there on in, gun battling, fist fights and more cars exploding are delivered at regular intervals with crisp, bone crunching energy. The only thing that mars the action slightly is the scenes tend to be over quickly, never sustained long enough. But having said that, Alien Agent still crams in a ton of CGI free set pieces



Dacascos is his reliable and nimble self (getting a cool fight in a motel hallway) but is starting to look a little tired of starring in these formulaic sci-fi action films. Billy Zane is hardly there and Dominique Vandenberg from Pit Fighter also pops as a nasty, off-his-head bad alien causing all kinds of havoc. Cooke is one sexy alien and there are some nice plot diversions courtesy of Kim Coates’ kooky scientist and alien sympathizer and Emma Lahanna as the earthling who is along for the ride with Dacascos.

Again, nothing to write home about but Alien Agent has charm and action and is a decent vehicle that will suffice until the next aliens on the run action flick hits DVD shelves.