Thursday, 27 May 2010
BEST OF THE BEST 4: WITHOUT WARNING (1998)
Directed by: Phillip Rhee
Screenplay: Phillip Rhee & Fred Vicarel
Starring: Phillip Rhee, Tobin Bell & Ernie Hudson
Well the Best of the Best series managed to trundle on to a fourth installment and while this final entry is far from the cool tournament fight based fun of the first two outings, there is still enough low rent action fun to warrant at least one viewing. The original Best of the Best and its first sequel were, and still are, quality tournament fight films featuring martial artist Phillip Rhee and the always awesome Eric Roberts. Roberts jumped ship for Parts 3 and 4 with Rhee taking over the lead role along with writing and directing duties.
Here he abandons the tournament fight element and much like Part 3 goes for a straight up action film vibe. Still plenty of martial arts fights but this time we get all kinds of vehicle mayhem, explosions and a healthy dose of gunfire. Rhee is all around good egg Tommy Lee who happens to be a martial arts bad ass. He just wants to get along with everyone and raise his daughter the best he can. But due to some low budget action movie plot madness he gets mixed with Tobin (Jigsaw from the Saw flicks) Bell’s Russian bad dudes who want an incriminating disc Tommy has in his possession. Needless to say they kill a bunch of people Tommy knows, kidnap his daughter which leads to Tommy going off on a one man rampage, meaning there are regular bouts of over-the-top but entertaining action.
Cheesy action fluff this certainly is with hammy acting a go-go, absurd plot detours and some of the most annoying and ridiculously portrayed Russian heavies to be seen in a low rent action film. The film suffers from not having all of the original cast return and the whole thing is too much of a vanity project for star/producer/writer/director Rhee. He’s not that bad really but this entry is so ridiculous in many aspects, it even pushes what you can get away with in a ridiculous low budget action film. Tobin Bell certainly seems to be having fun but his character is never threatening and poor old Ernie (Ghostbusters) Hudson is obviously just there to pick up a pay cheque.
All plot goofiness and character absurdity aside (and one has to expect a lot of both in the 4th in a series of low budget action films), Best of the Best 4 is at least crammed with pretty cool action scenes. They range from the brutal and nicely choreographed to the absolutely bonkers. With a budget somewhat diminished since the first two entries, Rhee certainly aims high and goes for some pretty big spectacle. The opening truck raid/steal is certainly ambitious in scope but rendered rubbish by distinctly dodgy visual effects and another sequence involving a tanker, motorcycles and a helicopter is so improbable and over-the-top it just comes off as laugh out loud funny rather than thrilling. However, Rhee manages to even this out with some finely tuned displays of martial arts action and some thrilling scenes of firepower. Rhee choreographs his scenes with bite and punch and there is an inventive scene where he takes on a bunch of stick fighters, utilizing a fencing sword to thwart them off.
Nowhere near as good as Best of the Best 1 & 2 but still a lot of fun on its own barmy action terms, Best of the Best 4 entertains with its heavy dose of violently staged action and is overall your typical 1990s straight-to-video actioner. And if you are in the mood for that, then it will do.
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
THE MYTH (2005)
Directed by: Stanley Tong
Screenplay: Stanley Tong, Hai-shu Li, Hui-Ling Wang
Starring: Jackie Chan, Tony Leung Kai Fai, Hee-seon Kim, Mallika Sherawat, Ken Lo, Rongguang Yu
In between Hollywood projects, Jackie Chan still returns to Hong Kong to make pictures more akin to those he was churning out in the 80s and early 90s. Now, The Myth is nowhere near as good as Chan’s golden era classics or even recent Hong Kong efforts like The Shinjuku Incident and the awesome New Police Story but it gets an A for effort. Re-teaming with director Stanley Tong, the pair having made some of Chan’s best films including Rumble in the Bronx and Police Story 3: Supercop, Chan attempts to craft a daring adventure that spans two periods of time, is a love story and features lots of inventive fight action. As a result, and non-surprisingly, it’s a mixed bag.
In present day Hong Kong, Chan plays Jack an archaeologist who is having dreams that he was once a fierce General in dynasty times protecting the Emperor’s wife, Ok Soo (Hee-seon Kim). Believing this may be a past life, Jack’s dreams become more vivid so much so that when his scientist friend William (Tony Leung) asks for his help on a quest to the find and bring back the source of levitation (or something!), Jack’s past life may come crashing into his present one. So, a jaunt to India, frequent flashbacks to his past life, some modern days goons worked in for Chan to fight and lots of mumbo jumbo about love, levitation and immortality and we are almost back to golden era Chan. Almost.
Too many ideas and concepts thrown together, much like a 80s Chan fight flick but with none of the fun flair. That’s not entirely true as The Myth is entertaining in fits and starts but is just too bloated for its own good. Its always nice to see a more serious Jackie Chan, actually acting a bit as well as fighting, but he and the film just takes themselves too seriously. The constant flashbacks between the past and present become jarring and never quite fit together, the scenes set in the past somewhat confusing and over complicating matters. Or maybe just a tad boring meaning I wasn't paying much attention. The period detail is excellent and often epic in nature but despite everything connecting at the end (sort of), The Myth often feels like two films in one: the big, period epic about war and love and the modern day adventure with lots of knockabout fun. I would have preferred just the modern day knockabout adventure.
The film certainly looks good and Chan and Tong were obviously going for a big adventure but everything just feels a little undercooked and rushed. Too many characters often clog up the screen and the film is unfortunately let down by sub par CGI, especially in the second half of the film. Too much spectacle is thrown at the screen with CGI that doesn’t convince and mars a lot of the big set pieces including several big battle scenes and the final showdown which, admittedly, is set in a visually stunning setting but all the fight action hampered by the aforementioned sub par CGI.
However, The Myth is entertaining in parts and thankfully features a good helping of excellent fight action. While a lot of the later action is too CGI influenced the first half of the film features some vintage Chan styled action, seeing him cut loose in a series of creative fights. A fight centred around a large coffin with two spear wielding guards, is fast, furious and inventive the comedy flowing with the action. Likewise, and the film’s best set piece, a fight in a glue factory is pure Chan and so creative it shows the man still has some tricks left up his sleeve. There is also a bravura action scene featuring Chan taking on an entire army which is bloody and brutal and Chan even gets a little scrap with the great Ken Lo (though don’t go expecting anything like their incredible dual at the end of Drunken Master 2).
Not a complete write off but far from Chan greatness, The Myth gets by on its own good looking terms and its ample amount of real and inventive fight action. It’s just a pity the rest of the action is marred by ropey CGI and the story is just too much of a mish-mash to be really engaging. Still a lot better than Chan’s recent Hollywood output and not a bad effort considering the guy is getting on a bit now but far from the great adventure flick it could have been.
Written & Directed by: David Mamet
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alice Braga, Randy Couture, Joe Mantegna, Emily Mortimer, Rodrigo Santoro
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continues its breakthrough into the mainstream and gets the serious treatment in David Mamet’s Redbelt. A sort of anti Rocky tale in the sense that the hero is doing everything in his power not to compete and resist taking part in the prize fight. Mike Terry (Ejiofor) is a Jiu-Jitsu master who runs his dojo much like a samurai: his is a pursuit of honour not personal glory, a belief he attempts to instil on his students. But as life is not only about the pursuit of honour, money, or the lack there of, rears its ugly head and Mike finds himself in increasing debt, his dojo on the line. Thrown into a world of fight promoters and movie stars after an incident at his dojo with a lawyer and a fight at a local bar, Mike attempts to work within the sport and movie worlds to make some money but without having to fight. Yet, events and those around him conspire against him meaning that the only way to pay off debts, regain honour and earn what is rightly his, is for Mike to go against his principles and fight
As much about the nobility and science of the fight as it is with showcasing MMA styled action, Redbelt is first and foremost a drama. Albeit, one set within the fight world. It’s also about people, their relationships, what they will do to one another in the name of profit and how the world of sport and movies are the most corrupt of all. Hardly revolutionary but given added bite and depth by Mamet’s trademark labyrinth like dialogue and by a hero who is so tuned into his own sense of belief he is unaware of those who are using him for their own personal gain. Mamet’s film does touch on the corruption of the sport and movie worlds but at its heart Redbelt is about the people: from Emily Mortimer’s emotionally wrecked lawyer (and possibly Mike’s only true friend), Tim Allen’s lost, jaded and ultimately manipulative movie star and to Mike’s exasperated wife (Braga) who may just be seduced by all these new corrupt people in return for a financially better life. It’s their interaction, emotion and dialogue that gives the film resonance and Mamet’s trademark human complexity.
In addition, this is a film also about MMA and perhaps the most realistically portrayed yet. The science of the fight, the honour of the fight and what it truly means to be a fighter all seen through the eyes and actions of Mike Terry. Despite the dramatic nature of the film and that many will tell you this is not a fight/action film (which, of course, it isn’t) there are still plenty of scenes displaying some impressive MMA fighting. Realistically portrayed though still slickly choreographed, the fights have a crisp authenticity to them and show Ejiofor trained hard to perfect the moves for the screen.
Along with excellent support from the likes of Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, Rodrigo Santoro and a cast against type Tim Allen, wonderful and rich photography from Robert Elswit, Redbelt is a satisfying human drama about the times in our lives when we all need to fight for something. The tone does vary a little too much to be wholly consistent and those who aren’t a fan of Mamet’s unique style will not be won over by this but Redbelt is perhaps one of the most human martial arts films you are likely to see
Monday, 17 May 2010
Monday, 10 May 2010
My new review of Dororo at Far East Films (www.fareastfilms.com)
The final screening of the “Monthly Classics Double-Edged Sword” series has arrived! On Friday, May 14, the monthly classics will finish off with a clang, screening Kazuo Ikehiro’s The Lone Stalker (6:30 PM) and Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple (8:30 PM), two rare and wonderfully unique films for the series’ stars: Raizo Ichikawa and Shintaro Katsu.
The Lone Stalker
A.K.A. Lone Wolf Isazo
ひとり狼 (Hitori Okami)
Friday, May 14, 6:30 PM
1968, 83 min., 16mm, color, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro. With Raizo Ichikawa, Isamu Nagato, Mayumi Ogawa. Print courtesy of The Japan Foundation with permission from Kadokawa Pictures.
The epitome of the matatabi (samurai gambler) movie, Lone Wolf Isazo ranks as one of Raizo Ichikawa’s most spectacular performances. Employing flashbacks within flashbacks and a brooding romantic style poised somewhere between Budd Boetticher and early Sergio Leone, director Kazuo Ikehiro charts Isazo’s descent from chivalrous naïf to vengeance-obsessed cynical wanderer, giving a definitive chronicle of the loneliness of the long-distance wanderer.
The Devil's Temple
鬼の棲む館 (Oni no Sumu Yakata)
Friday, May 14, 8:30 PM
1969, 76 min., 35 mm, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Kenji Misumi. With Shintaro Katsu. Print courtesy of Kadokawa Pictures.
In this little known Misumi masterpiece, an abandoned temple nestled in the mountains is the scene of a fateful encounter between a Buddhist monk, two women in love with the same man, and a fallen samurai (Katsu, at his most ferocious). As destinies collide: it appears that not just the lives of the quartet are at stake, but their very souls. Hell awaits!
For more information and to book tickets, visit http://www.japansociety.org/film
Wednesday, 5 May 2010
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009)
Directed by: John Hyams
Written by: Victor Ostrovsky
Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren & Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski
“I’m just gonna do something here…”
It’s been some years since the original Universal Soldier paired up action stars Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundrgen. A rollicking slice of sci-fi action it was one of their biggest hits and after one duff (though admittedly rather entertaining) sequel with Van Damme but sans Lundgren and two spin off films (that featured neither star but bizarrely, Burt Reynolds!) the former titans of the action world are back front and centre for an official third go around. Well, not front and centre as they are more co-stars in this entry but this matters not as its simply great to see them in the roles again, kicking the crap out of one another and on its own terms, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a corking action film.
Not much has changed this time around, except the budget is considerably reduced and the events of the new film seem to pretty much ignore the Van Damme starring sequel The Return altogether. A rogue scientist has pinched a Unisol (the genetically engineered super soldiers that the title refers to) and is using it for his own nefarious and money hungry needs. Teamed up with a small militia, said scientist is letting the bonkers leader of said militia use the new super improved Unisol (Andrei Arlovski) to help overthrow the Eastern European country they are shacked up in. A team of Universal Soldiers are sent into retrieve the stolen Unisol and stop the scientist and his small army but are quickly dispatched. This means the mission falls to Luc Devereux (Van Damme) one of the original Unisols, who is currently attempting, and pretty much failing at, adapting to civilian life. He eventually agrees and not only goes up against this new breed of Universal Soldier but must also go head to head with an old and regenerated adversary (Lundgren).
Ok, the bad news out of the way first: Van Damme and especially Lundgren aren’t in this enough. It doesn’t spoil the film in anyway and in Lundgren’s case actually makes his character more of a third act threat but it would have been great to see the two in the film for longer and duke it out much more. The two first made the original Universal Soldier way back in 1992 so in this installment they are non-surprisingly looking a little longer in the tooth and quite tired. Again, not that this detracts from the film in anyway, as the film acknowledges and plays to their age but fans of the two stars may be a little disappointed they aren‘t featured more heavily. Having said all that the two, despite their age, still throw themselves into the excitingly staged action with Van Damme in particular ripping through a series of audacious action scenes come the final act. He is on good form here, all quiet and melancholic, the fighting and killing he took part in taking its toll on his character. Likewise, Lundgren is awesome as a regenerated version of his character from the original and it’s great to see him sinking his teeth into such a great bad guy role. His scenes may be few but they are certainly memorable with some killer lines and a wicked smack-down between him and Van Damme.
They are joined by UFC fighter Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski, making his action movie debut, as the Unisol gone bad, who obliterates his way through a series of action scenes that get better and better as the film goes on. Rarely uttering a word, Arlovski is an unstoppable machine and gets to cut loose in just about every action scene. The set pieces, despite being filmed in abandoned warehouses/power plants/steel mills (the whole film seems to be set in one or the other) are, for the lack of a better word, awesome. Crisp, brutal, shot and cut with flair and featuring a good dose of firepower and MMA flavored fighting, the filmmakers and stunt team have maximized on the novel premise of super soldiers being able to keep kicking the crap out of one another and delivered high impact, sustained and momentum pulsing action scenes. From the standout opening car chase, to Arlovski taking out the team of Unisols, to Van Damme vs. Lundgren and Van Damme vs. Arlovski the action is exciting, violent, bloody and pretty much non-stop. There is even a nice helping of military styled action as Van Damme takes on a platoon of bad guys single handily and an amazing one take shot of Van Damme clearing out a building with an automatic weapon. There is also an extremely brutal set piece of Van Damme taking out more bad guys with just a knife. As already stated, Van Damme certainly throws himself into the action. Yes, he and Lundgren are doubled on occasion, just as they were back in the original. Even action stars use stunt doubles, as has been the case for decades, it happens and will continue to do so but it doesn't spoil the action scenes at all.
It must also be noted how well shot the action is (by 80s and 90s Hollywood director and cinematographer Peter Hyams) and how effective the subtle music score is in creating tension and momentum. In fact, the music, photography and overall style make Universal Soldier: Regeneration a dark and violent sci-fi actioner. Much more so than its predecessors and its all to the film’s benefit. It may be a little light plot wise but this matters not with the cool cold edged tone, two action stars back on the screen together and some of the best action scenes to be seen in a low budget threequel. Much better than expected with brilliant action scenes, Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a top notch sequel that will keep action fans happy for days
BANGKOK ADRENALINE (2009)
Directed by: Raimund Huber
Screenplay: Raimund Huber, Conan Stevens, Gregory T. Eismin
Starring: Daniel O’Neill, Priya Suandokemai, Gwion Jacob Miles, Conan Stevens & Raimund Huber
Cheesy martial arts a go-go in this good looking but often amateur feeling Thai actioner that, despite the wobbly thespian skills of its main actors, is actually quite a fun action ride. Luckily, Bangkok Adrenaline is packed with inventive, acrobatic fights and stunts as four backpacking douche bags attempt to pay the money back they lost gambling to a local crime boss by kidnapping the daughter of another dodgy crime lord and holding her for ransom. Yeah, brilliant plan! Non-surprisingly things don’t go well, leading to a whole lot of free running, fisticuffs and an alarming amount of “comedy” hi-jinks.
Ok, to be fair Bangkok Adrenaline isn’t half as bad as it reputation might suggest. The action is copious, breathlessly staged and to be honest the comedy hi-jinks are actually quite funny. The paper thin plot serves nothing more than to base several extended fight scenes around and for the four male leads to strut and mug across the screen. The trouble is none of them are very likable characters. Well, main star Daniel O’Neill is pretty decent, the only character who seems to have any morals. The rest are bunch of loud mouth, as stated, douche bags who you really wouldn’t mind seeing getting their heads kicked in. The “acting” leaves a lot to be desired for but I let all the other reviews/critics/bloggers wax lyrical about how awful it is. Bangkok Adrenaline is simply an excuse to showcase the impressive fighting skills of Daniel O’Neill and a host of flipping, spinning stuntmen, kicking the snot out of one another in sun soaked Bangkok. And on those terms, Bangkok Adrenaline works just fine.
It does take a while for the action to kick in, again too much time spent on comedy mugging but once it does, the action and fights are gloriously inventive, intricate and sustained. While not as brutal as say a lot of Thai action cinema (Ong Bak, Born to Fight) the sheer acrobatics and momentum of the fight scenes make them a joy to watch. They may be a little rough around the edges but these guys know how to fight and choreograph. Star Daniel O’Neill, who has been plying the action trade for some time now in stunt and bit parts, is a martial arts whiz and gets the bulk of the fighting to himself. The number of snazzy moves, takedowns and kicks he knows is unbelievable and all put to good use in a series of show stopping fights and chases. His fight in a cramped alley and the one-on-one fight with another high kicking bad guy atop a stack of pallets are dazzling displays of fighting skill. O’Neill along with co-star Miles and one time Jackie Chan opponent, Ron Smoorenburg (Who Am I?) and a host of others action coordinators put their knowledge of action staging to good use and push themselves to create some wicked fight scenes on what must have been a very small budget.
Not much else to say other than if you are in the mood for some easy going, bubblegum action cinema, then Bangkok Adrenaline is a breezy 80 minutes of fight action. It’s also pretty funny despite the dodgy acting, the lead girl is very, very pretty (and acts everyone else off the screen), and there is an awesome fight on one of those groovy little Thai taxi's
My new review of Big Man Japan at Far East Films (www.fareastfilms.com)