Thursday, 25 August 2011
Directed by: Benny Chan
Written by: Alan Yuen, Chi Kwong Cheung, Quiyu Wang, Kam Cheong Chan, Cheung Tan
Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bingbing, Wu Jing, Xin Xin Xiong, Jackie Chan
Blockbuster kung fu doesn’t come much more enjoyable than Benny Chan’s Shaolin: a big, slick epic that features some of the best kung fu action around. Andy Lau plays the powerful General Hou Jie who in the early years of the Chinese Republic is pushing his army ever forward in order to conquer as much land as possible. When his plans to eliminate another powerful warlord backfire, with his young daughter slain in the crossfire and his sworn brother Cao (Tse) betraying him, Jie escapes to a nearby Shaolin temple. Despite having earlier threatened the lives of the monks, they accept him into their ranks. Here Jie rehabilitates himself, comes to see there is more to life than war mongering and learns martial arts under the tutelage of the monks
It is a somewhat predictable story in terms of a once bad man now learning to be good through the loss he has endured and learning to fight back against those who betrayed him. But thanks to some impeccable production values, tight direction and all the actors performing at the top of their game (both in the dramatic and action departments), Shaolin is a corking kung fu flick. Benny Chan has always been good at delivering blockbuster Hong Kong action (Who Am I, New police Story, Invisible Target) and gets to show a more dramatic side with this film. Sure, there is still the requisite amount of bombast and some incredible kung fu but the film gives ample time to the kindly monks and their way of life and how Jie comes to be part of their extended family. So it might not be a serious or meditative look at the life and training of the Shaolin monk but the film is a welcome slice of old fashioned storytelling told on a grand scale.
Lau is his usual solid self, Nicholas Tse (The Beast Stalker) is positively vile as Jie’s duplicitous right hand man (though perhaps a little over-the-top compared to the rest of the film) and there is quality support from Wu Jing (who unfortunately just doesn’t get to fight enough) and the megastar himself, Jackie Chan. Despite only having a supporting role he plays a bigger part than you might think and, yes, gets his own fight scene as well. And it’s a doozy.
The action and fight scenes are top notch, partly overseen by martial arts legend Cory Yuen (Fong Sai Yuk). The kung fu is sharp and slick, the choreography tight, featuring just the right amount of wirework to enhance some of the confrontations: not least the wicked battle that sees Jie being betrayed involving a horde of soldiers brandishing giant axes. Benny Chan can’t quite get away from his love of all things blowing up and the flick features some epic explosions and destruction that could give Michael Bay a run for his money.
It might not always be subtle but Shaolin is still a well-made blockbusting period action film that shows modern kung fu films (even when set in the past) still have a lot to offer.
Friday, 5 August 2011
TARGET PRACTICE (2008)
Written & Directed by: Richmond Riedel
Starring: Eric Dean, Aaron Hawk, Joey Lanai, Solomon Hoilett, Eltony Williams, Bill Elverman, Richard Deguilo, Daniel Rosenberg
If there is one thing that Target Practice is, it's a helluva tense filled survival tale. Peppered with frequent bursts of fire-powered action, Richmond Riedel's flick manages a feat rarely seen in action cinema these days: keeping the tension wound tight for the entire running time. Rarely does the dire nature of our protagonists dilemma lose its urgency as a group of regular guys head off on a routine fishing trip only to stumble upon a homegrown terrorist training camp. With half the group gunned down, the other half on the run and a possible CIA undercover operation about to be blown, Target Practice is a rare gem of micro budget action cinema that delivers tension and action with expert skill.
Utilising a great setting, some impressive actors and pacing and staging the action for maximum impact, Riedel overcomes (what was presumably) a tiny budget and a familiar set-up to craft an action film which serves up the requisite thrills as well as giving us characters that are much more than mere stereotypes. They might not always be likable but these blue collar guys are thrown into extreme circumstances and certainly grow and learn to adapt over the two grueling days of survival they are put through. Riedel wisely gives us characters we can sink our teeth into, splitting them into two groups: dealing with the situation they've found themselves in and escalating bouts of violence with varying results. They shout, they get scared, they argue, they learn to fight back and refreshingly they talk out what they are gonna do. It's never clear who is going to survive and this all adds to the tension. The characters really feel lost in what seems to be a never-ending woodland area, again adding to the mounting dread and the cast (all relative unknowns) give it their all and convince as desperate men and ruthless killers. Ok, so the bad guys sometimes feel a little low rent and don't always fully convince as deadly terrorists in their scruffy camo gear but they're certainly unrelenting in their determination to kill our heroes.
It's the kinetic charge that makes Target Practice so successful as an action film. Riedel rings every knot of tension out of every situation and stages some impressive gun battles as the hunters take up arms against their pursuers. This all leads to an impressive finale where the heroes forge a plan to ambush the would be terrorists and save their fellow friends who have fallen into the enemy hands. The terror is felt as those who have never fought before have to kill in order to save themselves and their friends all the while going up against trained killers. The tension reaches breaking point and what follows is an expertly staged fire fight that packs as much an emotional punch as it does a visceral one.
Visceral is a good way to describe Target Practice and while the flick perhaps OD's a little on the herky-jerky camerawork it's a minor quibble for what is an accomplished action film that has the right balance of character and action and overcomes its minuscule budget to be a genuine edge of your seat thrill ride.
CIRCLE MAN (1987)
Directed by: Damien Lee
Written by: David Mitchell & Damien Lee
Starring: Vernon Wells, Michael Copeman, William Sanderson, Sonja Belliveau, Franco Columbu, Real Andrews
One time Road Warrior nemesis and John Matrix botherer, Vernon Wells, got a shot at leading action man status in this low rent but surprisingly enjoyable Canadian produced tournament fight flick. More of a street fight/boxing style fight flick rather than a martial arts picture, Circle Man has all the absurdity and low budget wackiness found in these kinds of films but finds time for some character interaction between all the knuckle dusting and has a kind of easy going charm thanks to the likable lead and an array of eccentric characters.
It's your typical story of a down and out fighter who is a little too old and a little too washed up to fight anymore. Trying to turn his life around and look out for his friends, Roo (Wells) decides to dust off the fists one last time and score big before retiring for good and leading the good life with his lady friend. But he's got to deal with a dodgy fight promoter, go up against tough young guns who are leaner and meaner than him and get through several obligatory training montages before he can quit the fight life for good.
This is an earlier cheapie effort from action cheapie specialist Damien Lee (Abraxas, No Exit) and the low rent vibe adds to the blue collar, working-for-a-dollar, down-on-his-luck atmosphere. While the acting at times can be distinctly amateur and over-the-top, Wells at least comes off likable as he goes about doing good by everyone all the while surrounded by a whole host of off-the-wall characters. Not least Batty (one time Arnie stunt double and weight lifting buddy, Franco Columbu) who is completely bonkers after being hit in the head one two many times and spends most of his scenes jumping up and down and ranting insanely.
The fights are mainly saved for the second part of the film and while not intricately choreographed they have a fairly brutal appeal as the fighters trade blows in a less flashy style. Equal parts silly and oddly endearing, Circle Man is a surprisingly entertaining mix of drama and fight action that should appeal to tournament fight film fans and those who enjoy low budget, odd-ball cinema (and there is a fair few of us out there).