Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tough To Kill (1978)

Om nom nom

Coming straight off the heels of Emanuelle and Last Cannibals, Joe D'Amato took a break from softcore porn and punched out this sporadically entertaining if grim action flick. It takes it's cues from the cynical men-on-a-mission films of the era (The Wild Geese was clearly a big influence; one of the characters even notes "You were at eachother's throats like wild geese!") and it takes place in a nihilistic, dog-eat-dog world where everybody is out for himself etc. In that respect it's a lot like Rolf (aka The Last Mercenary), but while that film had a guy getting his fingers dipped into a poop-filled toilet, this film has a guy getting his whole body dunked into a huge tub full of human feces. Point: Joe D'Amato!

Martin (Luc Merenda) is a tough-as-nails mercenary who, after some mysterious business involving a slip of a paper in a safe deposit box, signs up to a regiment of mercenaries in some unnamed African country. The outfit is lead by Major Haggerty (Donal(d) O'Brien from Zombie Holocaust and 2020: Texas Gladiators), nicknamed "Ex-Lax" for his tendency to make new recruits shit their pants. Haggerty runs a tight ship (as he puts it "I'll be leading this unit as long as I'm able to break the spine of presumptuous young upstarts like yourself") but his methods are fairly unorthodox. For instance he has an obstacle course full of remote control fans and flamethrowers; and he likes to test the leadership abilities of his troops by forcing them to play chicken with live grenades.

For some reason a local native named Wabu (Percy Hogan from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals) sneaks into the base and latches onto Martin. After Wabu proves himself worthy by not flinching when Martin pulls a gun on him, Martin bestows upon him the generous honour of becoming his personal servant. As this would suggest, Martin's not the most racially progressive guy around. During his last assignment in Angola he didn't even bother to learn the local language ("I didn't talk to 'em; I only shot 'em") and when he fucks up an obstacle course Haggerty demands he leave the whites-only unit and serve with the Africans, a shameful fate that Martin simply cannot live with. Instead he opts to take part in Haggerty's grenade-focused officer's exam, a test he passes with flying colours.

As a selfish, unrepentant asshole, Martin fits in nicely with the rest of his unit. These include Polanski (Wolfgango Soldati), a Polish mercenary who keeps a pet white rabbit in his pocket at all times, and Leon, a cowardly blowhard and Haggerty's second-in-command, who stands out as a particularly racist shithead even by the standards of the team. They, along with a couple of other nondescript side-characters, agree to volunteer for a suicide mission, but only on the promise of a hefty bonus, a generous insurance policy and an even split of the shares of any casualties. Martin has additional motivation, though. Turns out that Leon, Haggerty's second-in-command, is actually a war criminal and Martin has contacts that will pay a million dollar bounty for his return. Haggerty is well aware of this fact and intends to collect the bounty himself, but they let it slip to the rest of the team and soon everybody wants a piece.

Unsurprisingly their ill-defined mission to liberate a bridge from "the enemy" goes tits up to the moon, and the team is forced to escape into the jungle. It's a slow trudge back to civilisation and everybody is acutely aware that each casualty means a greater share of the reward. When they run out of food Polanski ruefully agrees to cooks up his pet rabbit, but as a final act of retribution he laces it with the team's cyanide pills. Leon wolfs it down singlehandedly and pays the price, but luckily the bounty is one of those dead-or-alive deals. When Leon's rapidly-decaying corpse becomes too much of a burden Martin makes the grisly realisation that the head itself will be sufficient proof to his employers. Insert your own head pun here.

Naturally the cast is whittled down to a few starring players through natural and unnatural causes, including a mano-a-mano battle between Haggerty and Polanski that sees Donald O'Brien running around the jungle in his underwear. The survivors manage to make it back alive and collect on the reward, but I really didn't expect a cynical third-act twist that shows the white man doesn't have a monopoly on fucking people over. In any other film it would have been fairly obvious, but I've grown so accustomed to the racism that is ingrained into 70s exploitation films that I honestly didn't see it coming. You got me, D'Amato.

On a technical level this is middling D'Amato, which is probably 10,000 leagues under what most people would consider watchable. I guess I considered it watchable though, since I watched it. The usual caveats apply: bad acting, terrible sound quality, bad dubbing, etc. There is some nice location shooting. The score is by Stelvio Cipriani, who did the music for Nightmare City and James Cameron's first (and some might say best) film Pirahna II: The Spawning. The main theme is a funky piece of jungle-disco that is catchy at first but loses it's luster after it is used over and over again, frequently in scenes where it is completely inappropriate.

Aside from the full-body poop-dunking though, this film is somewhat lacking in the tasteless exploitation that is synonymous with Joe D'Amato. Explosions are entirely off-screen, the infrequent gun battles are almost completely bloodless and the beheading takes place completely out of frame. We never even get a good look at the severed head, and I was hoping for at least one shot because judging by the reaction shots it was pretty ripe by the end of the film. The DVD I watched was an abysmal VHS transfer though, complete with several seconds of test pattern preceeding the film, so I wouldn't be surprised if some violence or sex was cut out somewhere along the way.

Do not expect the manly, explosion-filled action film promised by the awesome cover. It's pretty manly (there's only one woman in the entire film and she only has one line of dialog - telling the hero how awesome he is, naturally) but it really isn't that kind of film. It's about the journey, man. An uncompromisingly bleak journey where you have to drag around a rotting corpse while violent, racist assholes try to fuck you over for a buck. I kind of liked it. It would make a good date movie.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Blastfighter (1984)

Moustache bros for life!

With a name like Blastfighter, and the presence of 2019: After the Fall of New York luminaries George Eastman and Michael Sopkiw, it should come as no surprise that this film was originally intended to be a sci-fi action flick. Unfortunately budgetary constraints necessitated a change in genre and Dardano Sacchetti was called in to knock out another one of his overnighters (he only wrote five scripts in 1984; it must have been a slow year). I guess he hadn't quite finished with First Blood after writing the First Blood/Billy Jack mashup Thunder, so this time he throws some Deliverance into the mix. Since they were already committed to delivering a film named Blastfighter (films were sold based on titles in those days; it was a simpler time) they also included a ridiculously big gun.

Sopkiw plays ex-cop Jake "Tiger" Sharp (best name ever), just released from prison after doing a 7 year stretch for executing the scummy hitman who murdered his wife. The first thing his best friend does after picking him up from the penitentiary is hand him a crazy big gun and drive him straight to the court house so he can assassinate the corrupt DA that ordered the hit. I always love it (in fiction) when an ex-con goes directly from prison to committing another crime, but unfortunately he pusses out at the last minute and takes his big gun to some shithole country town where he grew up.

Tiger's big gun may look like a SPAS-12 shotgun with a few useless scopes and doodads attached, but apparently it's some sort of prototype superweapon that fires "smoke bombs, flares, rubber pellets, lead slugs, armour piercing, darts, grenades, tear gas, explosives". Not shotgun shells, surprisingly. Don't get too attached to it because after he uses it to shoot an injured deer he buries it under the floorboards in his cabin and he won't be digging out for another hour or so.

By shooting the deer he angers a bunch of local rednecks who are selling the local wildlife to a weaselly "Chinaman" so he can makes herbal remedies. He pays more if the animals are still alive, since medicines are more potent if the animals are put in prolonged crippling, agony first. It's science. The rednecks are led by some idiot named Wally, who is the younger brother of Tiger's old friend Tom (George Eastman). Tom warns Tiger that if that if the conflict escalates then he's going to have to side with his brother. Tiger says he doesn't want any violence; he just wants them to treat the animals humanely. Then again, maybe he didn't have to blow up their truck by blowing up his own truck as a distraction. That was a bit excessive.

About halfway through the film this girl shows up at Tiger's cabin and starts bossing him around with no explanation as to who she is. Strangely he doesn't call the police or kick her crazy ass into the street, instead opting to sleep out on the balcony so she can have his bed. Show some balls, man! You've got to earn a name like Jake "Tiger" Sharp! Luckily it turns out that she is his estranged daughter Connie (so it's probably good that he didn't hit on her), showing up out of the blue to reconnect with her long lost dad. Look, I'm sure that Tiger would like nothing more than to hang out and feed deer with his daughter like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, but now is a pretty bad time.

Pretty soon the rednecks have killed some of Connie's friends and sent father and daughter running for their lives through the forrest. And here's Connie without a bra! Like Burt Reynolds, Connie gets a nasty broken leg and has to have the bone reset, and soon it's up to a lone Tiger to stealth-kill as many crazed hunters as he can. Indeed they seem to be multiplying by the minute, and what starts out as half a dozen guys ends up as five or six trucks packed to the brim with rednecks who would like nothing more than to give this city-slicker a 12-gauge enema. I don't know where all these murderous rednecks are coming from, but it gives Tiger a perfect opportunity to grab his super-weapon and provide some fiery vehicular explosions. George Eastman shows up in a helicopter to try and talk some sense into Tiger, later showing up in person for a final confrontation since I guess a helicopter explosion wasn't in this film's budget.

This one was directed by Lamberto Bava, who is credited as John Old Jr since this film went to even longer lengths than usual to hide it's Italian origins. Originally Fulci was attached to direct before he left to make his post-apocalyptic flick The New Gladiators, and although that might have been interesting Lamberto Bava is a good choice too. It's shot on location in Georgia, so there's some nice photography. The score features some sweet synth-y disco and a cover of Kenny Roger's Evening Star, though you're likely to be sick of both by the end of the film. It may be a bit slow in the middle, but Bava tries to make up for it in the last fifteen minutes with lots and lots of explosions.

Blastfighter may be an unabashed rip-off, but it's fairly entertaining and it wears it's influences on it's sleeve; even the banjo player from Deliverance makes a cameo appearance, or at least a convincing look-a-like. Nobody gets fucked in the ass though. If that's what you're after you should check out George Eastman's appearance in The New Barbarians.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Spider Baby (1968)

Who wants a drumstick?

I only ever knew Jack Hill from his Pam Grier blaxploitation films like Coffy or Foxy Brown, but a lot of horror buffs are big fans of this one; Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. It was filmed in 1964 under the name Cannibal Orgy, but due to financial issues it sat on a shelf for several years until it was rushed out the door as the B-film in a double feature. It wasn't successful, but later found a cult following and now it's influence can be seen in any number of horror films, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Devil's Rejects or pretty much any film featuring crazy backwoods cannibals.

The film begins with Mantan Moreland, playing the same unfortunate racist caricature he always does, delivering a letter to the Merrye household. He stops to ask directions from some children, only for their mother to rush out and pull the kids away from him, saying "If there is a Merrye house we don't know anything about it!". Although she starts to do that before he even says anything, so maybe she's just a huge racist. Eventually he finds the house, seemingly abandoned, and as he's poking around he gets his head caught in a window frame. Elizabeth, a teenage girl brandishing a couple of butcher's knives, whispers "I caught a big fat bug in my spider web" and stings him to death, by which I mean she cuts his face up and then puts his severed ear in a box to feed to her pet tarantulas.

Elizabeth is a sufferer of Merrye Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes people to regress mentally until they become children and eventually cannibalistic savages. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the Merrye family's chauffeur, made a promise to the dying patriarch of the family that he would become the caretaker of his sole surviving heirs, Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph. Elizabeth (Jill Banner) eats bugs and thinks she is a spider. Virginia (Beverly Washburn) is a squealing brat who is obsessed with punishing people who are "bad". Ralph (Sid Haig) is the most far gone of them all, a drooling simpleton who likes to hide in the dumbwaiter and kill cats for dinner. That's not even mentioning the older relatives they keep locked up in the basement. All they want is for people to leave them alone so they can live out their final days in peace.

That might make for a fascinating study of degenerative mental illness, but it wouldn't be a very entertaining movie, so sure enough some greedy cousins show up for their cut of the supposed Merrye fortune. These include the greedy, manipulative Emily (Carol Ohmart, from House on Haunted Hill), the Hilter-moustachioed, cigar-chomping lawyer Shlocker (Karl Schanzer), his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel) and the aw-shucks nice-guy Peter (Quinn Redecker). After some cajoling Lon Chaney Jr. agrees to let them stay the night, and there's a great dinner scene with Sid Haig in a hilarious Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit as they dine on freshly roasted "rabbit", dubious-looking mushrooms, and weeds plucked from the gardens.

After Peter and Ann bond over horror films (including a groan-inducing wink to Chaney's role in The Wolf Man) they decide to get a drink in town, the rest turning in for the night. Emily does what anyone would do when staying the night in a spooky old house, stripping to her lacy underwear and doing a sexy dance in front of the mirror. Ralph, peeping on her from outside the window, chases her down and rapes her, but luckily she starts to like it after a while so it doesn't count. Meanwhile Shlocker snoops around the house, and when he discovers the cannibals living in a pit in the basement, Virginia decides that he is "bad" and must be punished. When Bruno realises what his children are up to he decides to steal some dynamite from the local construction site and make sure the Merrye bloodline goes out with a bang and not a whimper.

Spider Baby is difficult film to describe. It lovingly sides with outcasts and monsters, kind of like 1932's Freaks, but it doesn't try to soften them in the process. It's fun and it works as a goofy comedy (it's clear from quirky opening theme song, sung by Lon Chaney Jr. himself, that we're not meant to take it too seriously), but it's sinister and creepy throughout. The Merrye's childlike innocence and casual attitude towards rape and murder is the main source of dark humour, horror and even some pathos. They are essentially children in adults bodies, which makes it extra creepy when Virginia ties "Uncle Peter" up in her spider web and tries to seduce him.

Although Beverly Washburn almost steals the show as Virginia, the bizarre mixture of performances is really what holds the film together. The acting styles of the two sisters couldn't be more different; Banner hissing her lines in a sinister whisper and Washburn hamming it up with a childlike squeal; but somehow they work really well together. Sid Haig gives an intensely physical performance as Ralph, drooling and grunting and generally giving it his all. It's fair to say that Lon Chaney Jr. didn't have too many memorable roles in the 60s, but here he is surprisingly touching and gives maybe one of the best performances in his career. Dude was probably drunk off his ass the entire time. Schanzer is the only weak link as the slimy Schlocker, projecting a high camp that seems a bit out of place.

Technically the film looks better than it's $65K budget would suggest, and it features some stellar black-and-white photography, but there are script problems. Some segments, such as Schlocker sneaking around the house, go on for far too long and the wrap-around segments where Redecker directly addresses the audience are clumsily handled. Still, there are so many neat touches to the characters (I like the way Virginia completes a puzzle by stabbing the pieces with a knife) that it's easy to see the love and care that went into the film. The cast interviews on the DVD suggest they are surprised and baffled by the film's cult following, but for me it's pretty easy to see why it has so many fans.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

Have you ever been watching Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way across the screen in The Adventures of Robin Hood and thought to yourself "Gee, this is a pretty good story, but it's too fun. If only there was a movie about Robin Hood that was less colourful, maybe a bit more drab and plodding." I haven't, but I guess Ridley Scott has. Being a post-Gladiator Ridley Scott film, this one has the stink of "realism" all over it. That's not to say that it's a deconstruction of the Robin Hood myth or particularly interested in moral ambiguity. What realism means in this case is a brown-and-grey colour palette, a dour, humourless Robin Hood and lots of mud and grime and violence. No blood though, that could cut into some of that sweet PG-13 money.

In this version of the story, Robin, Little John, Alan-A-Dale and Will Scarlett are lowly soldiers in King Richard's army, sacking their way through France on their return from the Third Crusade. Robin is embittered and disenfranchised with the monarchy after taking part in the Siege of Acre, and after King Richard is killed in battle, the four of them decide to desert and return home. On the way they come across the aftermath of an ambush, and Robin promises a dying knight, Sir Robert Loxley, that he will return Loxley's sword to his father in Nottingham. It turns out that these knights were tasked with bringing news of the King's death back to England, so Robin and his men assume the identity of the knights and score a free ride home.

Robin fulfills his promise and tells the knight's blind old father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) of his son's death. Sir Walter then proposes that Robin live with him as his departed son, allowing Robin to continue his identity theft unabated. Part of the package involves shacking up with Robert Loxley's fiance Marian (Cate Blanchett, whose age means they delicately avoid the title "Maid", although Robin generously refers to her as "girl" at one point). She frostily rebuffs his advances at first (pulls a knife on him etc) but eventually warms up to his fierce sense of social justice. Sir Walter provides sage advice and eventually does a Vulcan mind meld with Robin that makes him remember that his father was involved with writing the Magna Carta or some stupid bullshit.

While all this is going on, the newly crowned King John (Oscar Isaac, who seems to be only guy in the cast having any fun) aligns himself with the traitorous French-aligned Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), paving the way for a French invasion of England. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it gives Crowe a chance to climb onto a stage and give a rousing speech to unite the disgruntled Lords before leading them into a Saving Private Ryan inspired beach invasion battle. I know we're a long way from the Ridley Scott of Alien or Blade Runner, but this obsession with large-scale CGI-enhanced battles has to stop. The whole deal with Robin Hood was that he was a man of the people, a little guy making a difference by striking back against The Man. Seeing him lead a few hundred soldiers into battle against evil, cackling Frenchmen seems to be missing the point.

And that's pretty much it. Don't expect any Robin Hood derring-do, as it's more of an origin story, the Batman Begins of Robin Hood films. This is a problem, because I've never felt that the motivations of Robin Hood were a perplexing mystery that's worth exploring. There was injustice and inequality brought about by a tyrant King, so Robin becomes an outlaw. Pretty simple and understandable. This film provides a muddled backstory that nobody really asked for. Perhaps wealth distribution was too controversial a topic in the current politically-charged climate, so they put in a bunch of scenes with evil Frenchmen (the French are depicted as almost universally evil in this film, which probably made a debut at Cannes a pretty poor decision on their part) and Robin ranting about taxation and government. The Teabaggers should eat that shit up.

Performances are pretty good, even if the dialogue gets a bit corny at times. Everything looks nice and authentic. This isn't a poorly made film by any means; this is Ridley Scott we're talking about here, not Tony Scott. I didn't hate it, it just seems so meandering and pointless. The movie seems content to bumble around with boring political subplots while the fun, traditional Robin Hood elements get pushed into the background. Hell, the Sheriff of Nottingham has about four lines in the entire film. It's a pity, since the original script for this film, simply entitled Nottingham, actually was a deconstruction, depicting a heroic Sherriff of Nottingham (who would have been played by Russel Crowe) fighting back against the terrorist activities of Robin Hood. Now that's a film I'd be interested in seeing.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Jennifer's Body (2009)

So, it looks like Megan Fox has been dumped from the Transformers franchise, after confirming to the press that Michael Bay is the thundering asshat that we all knew he was. Poor Megan Fox. Bay is a capricious and vengeful God; He giveth acting careers and He taketh them away. In the light of that news, what better time to review her 2009 Diablo-Cody-penned horror-comedy flop Jennifer's Body? Well, maybe back when it came out. Or when it came out on DVD. Or when the news about her ejection from the Transformers sequel came out a week or so ago. I only watched this movie on a whim at my sister's place a couple of days ago, so give me a break. Jesus.

Although the trailers made it seem like Megan Fox's Tits: The Movie, the main protagonist is actually her character's best friend Needy, played by Amanda Seyfried. The two are childhood friends, and have remained BFFs even though Jennifer has grown up to be a super-hot cheerleader and Needy a just-as-hot-but-wearing-dorky-glasses-and-tying-her-hair-back-so-you-know-she's-supposed-to-be-ugly nerd. One night Jennifer convinces Needy to come with her to a bar too see a lame indie rock band, but the bar catches on fire and the band kidnaps Jennifer so they can sacrifice her in a black magic ritual. The band mistakenly believe that she's a virgin (yeah right) so the sacrifice goes horribly wrong and she turns into an immortal cannibal succubus.

This is one of those allegorical horror films that's all about the trial and tribulations of being a teenage girl, like Ginger Snaps or Teeth, but it isn't as explicitly about puberty and burgeoning female sexuality except in the context of Needy and Jennifer's relationship. It's more about how Jennifer's rampant fucking/murdering drives a wedge between them and highlights the inequalities in their friendship. Needy has always been fairly indulgent and desperate for approval from Jennifer (oh, I see what you did there) and Jennifer's transformation into a sexy cannibal has only exacerbated things. For instance, Jennifer barfs evil black goo all over Needy's kitchen floor and doesn't even help clean it up. Eventually Needy realises that her friendship with Jennifer is not healthy and has to move on (by killing her).

I did appreciate that they didn't paint Needy as a desperate loser (in fact, she has a long-time boyfriend who is really sweet and probably the smartest character in the whole film) but she is a pretty passive protagonist. For most of the film she just stands around while Jennifer menaces and taunts her. Hell, when the bar catches on fire she just stands there and watches the flames spread across the ceiling beams. Do something, girl. Having such a useless protagonist really makes the middle of the film drag, but it's a nice moment at the end when she finally finds her balls. She has a Rambo-style power-up scene when she gears up for the final battle, a cliche I always love. It ends on a surprising bummer though, with Needy a violent inmate in a correctional facility. This isn't a spoiler, since it's part of the opening scene. It then flashes back to show what happened to get her there, followed immediately by a flashback within the flashback. Ouch. Shades of Dragon Wars.

In the wake of the Great Juno Backlash of '09, the studios played down Diablo Cody's involvement, but all of her trademarks are present and accounted for. Set design is a non-stop kitsch parade, with ugly wallpaper, hideous 80s style prom dresses a wide variety of ironic t-shirts. There's also gratuitous pop-culture name-dropping, for instance Needy is a big Evil Dead fan for no reason. Then, of course, there's the stylised dialog, which I didn't mind so much in Juno, but it grated on me a lot more here. A lot of this movie sounds like the executive producers brought in a focus group of teens to make the dialog sound more "real", and so the teens just started making up phony slang for shits and giggles, as is their wont. "Yeah, 'salty' is a word to describe someone who is hot. It's really popular on Twitter. You may want to include a line to explain it or the audience might get all freaktarded." Probably the biggest groaner is when Fox tells someone to "movealong.org".

I think part of the reason I didn't mind the Diablo-Cody-isms in Juno is that it had a solid emotional core that seemed really sweet and genuine. This film didn't work for me on that level, so when that kind of stylised dialog runs head first into a dramatic context it's really jarring and awkward. The worst part is during a scene at a funeral for one of the victims. After a bunch of goth types spout some goofy poetry (making fun of goths? How cutting edge) the grieving mother stands up and gives an outraged speech that does not approximate anything that has been said by any human being ever. She uses terms like "I have a monopoly on pain" and describes her son's corpse as looking like "lasagna with teeth" (a line which Cody must be particularly proud of, since she uses it again later). It's pretty bad.

Also working against this movie was the unfortunate decision to focus all the marketing around Megan Fox, who had become a walking punchline by this point. Even though I don't think she's a great actress, I don't think it's fair to judge her solely on her performance in Transformers. Michael Bay's notoriously poor direction of actors is partly to blame. To her credit she's much better here, although it should be no surprise that she does an alright job at playing a creepy, emotionless sex demon. Seriously, have you looked into those eyes? She's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. She's got the emotionless, hollowed-out look of a porn star but ironically she never appears nude. Oh, except you see her ass in this one. Some of her boobs too. Have at it, boys.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Ninja Assassin (2009)

Don't worry. You won't be needing that for this film.

After watching Isaac Florentine's direct-to-DVD movie Ninja, I decided to check out it's big(ger)-budget Hollywood equivalent, James McTeigue's indirect-to-DVD movie Ninja Assassin. It's interesting how differently the two films approach the same subject matter. In Ninja, the titular assassins are highly-skilled martial artists, but still essentially human. In Ninja Assassin they are treated like mythological creatures. They can literally melt into the shadows, teleport, throw hails of shuriken etc. Instead of hanging garlic to ward them off, you have to flood everything with bright light. Instead of silver bullets, you have to use... well, regular bullets I guess. But they're pretty hard to hit. It's basically a vampire film except with ninjas.

In keeping with the monster movie feel, they give them a suitably creepy/mysterious introduction. The film opens with a bunch of cocky Yakuza hoods getting tattoos. When one of them receives an envelope full of black sand, the old tattoo artist tells a story about how he witnessed a ninja assassination many years ago but nobody believed him. The punks just laugh at him, but suddenly the lights go out and they are attacked by mysterious unseen assassins. Are they ninjas? Could be. It's pretty gory; there are partial decapitations, limb amputations, etc. CG blood and body parts spray everywhere. I thought the ninjas would let the tattoo artist go, to spread the myth, but they murder him too. I guess an opportunity to tie up loose ends like that doesn't come around every day.

Naomi Harris plays a Europol agent named Mika. After the massacre she walks into her boss's office with a big stack of folders linking it to her pet theory; that there are secret clans of ninja performing assassinations around the world. In the real world this would make her dangerously deluded at best, but he just rolls his eyes at her. "Again with the ninjas?" I'll bet she's always trying to link random crimes to her pet theory. Drug deal gone bad? Ninjas. Tourist gets mugged? Ninjas. Company CEO embezzles the pension fund? It's gotta be ninjas. She's also an American, and although her presence in Europol goes unexplained, I assume it's because her American superiors got sick of her talking about ninjas all the time and transferred her to Germany.

Her boss gives her the go-ahead to investigate further, and she visits the widow of a Russian spy who was supposedly killed by ninjas. She gives Mika one of those metal boxes full of evidence that always crops up in movies like this. It contains some security footage of ninja assassins skulking around their house, which would have probably come in real handy during the murder investigation. Soon the ninjas figure out that she knows too much and send a group of assassins after her. Thankfully she is saved by Raizu (Rain), a rogue ninja who has turned against his clan. It's never exactly clear why he intervenes to save her life, but it leads to ninja fights etc. He is a mysterious man, a man of contradictions. For instance, he conceals their movements by using cigarette smoke to throw them off her scent, but at the same time he leaves their shuriken-riddled car parked out in full view in the hotel parking lot.

The main plot is interleaved with a series of flashbacks that explain Raizu's origins and why he has a grudge against his former Master (played by Sho Kusagi). Like the rest of his clan, he is an orphan raised to be a deadly assassin through extremely strict and counter-productive teaching methods. For example, when Raizu fucks up while sneaking across a creaky floor, Kosugi cuts up the bottom of his feet. That's exactly what you need when you're sneaking around barefoot, your soles covered in scar tissue. When Raizu winces after getting his head cut open in a training match, Kosugi uses a ninja pressure-point attack that leaves him writhing around on the floor in agony for several days. The present-day Raizu is covered in scars, so either particularly Kosugi's methods are particularly cruel or Raizu was just a colossal fuck-up.

Like in Ninja, the daughter of the Sensei had the hots for him. She's always disobeying clan rules and talking about her heart as a pretext to get him to touch her boobs. There's a lot of shit about hearts in this film. One plot point that crops up multiple times is dextrocardia, a medical condition where you are born with your heart on the opposite side of your body. Apparently ninjas will always try to stab you in the heart (except when they cut your head off), so dextrocardia is a get-out-of-assassination-free card since apparently being impaled through the chest is otherwise non-fatal. Anyway, Raizu's would-be girlfriend tried to escape, but she was captured and gleefully executed in front of him by his main rival Takeshi (Rick Yune). This was what inspired him to leave the clan and go on the lam. There, I saved you 45 minutes of flashbacks.

If you want to see ninjas stabbing dudes then you probably won't be disappointed. There's a lot of fighting. There's fighting in a warehouse, in a makeshift Europol headquarters, in a ninja dojo, and a pretty cool battle in the middle of a busy freeway at night, which is pretty much the worst place to be wearing a black ninja outfit. McTeigue is the Wachowski's second-unit, plus he did V for Vendetta, so the fights are shot pretty well. They are also extremely bloody; every time someone gets cut there is a geyser of CG blood, which is a pretty cool effect at first but grows tiresome. Action isn't always clearly communicated (it didn't help that they are all dressed in black and usually fighting in the dark, Ninja handled these scenes way better) but I never got too annoyed. It is acceptable. I accept it.

I don't know much about this Rain guy except that he's some Korean pop star with great abs and he was a hidden character in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. He does an okay job I guess. He's not a very charismatic hero. Even the marketing department doesn't give a shit about him; they cropped the top half of his face out of the poster. I guess he's trying to move away from his public image as a teen heart-throb, since I can't imagine a movie less suited towards 13 year old girls. Plus one of the Europol agents makes a crack about him looking like he belongs in a boy band, and he looks really angry, like he's going to kill him. Hang in there, buddy. Mark Wahlberg had to appear in a whole bunch of films before anyone could take him seriously.

As I suspected, Ninja was way better, but this film was not the complete garbage I was expecting. It still kind of annoys me that they are giving starring roles in martial arts action films to pop-stars while Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White toil in DTV obscurity. I am a little concerned as to where this trend might lead. Justin Timberlake starring in a bloody gladiator epic? Justin Bieber playing the lead in a Rambo-style jungle action film? Re-uniting the Backstreet Boys for a gritty Dirty Dozen reboot? Actually I'd probably watch that last one, if only to see which ones survive. My money's on Kevin.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Ninja (2010)

Hot ninja-on-ninja action!

Back the 80s, it seemed like an action hero couldn't get anything done without running into a bunch of ninjas. Ninjas everywhere. Damn ninjas. Thanks to hucksters like Godfrey Ho and the commodification and pussification that accompanies any fad, the market became oversaturated and the public suffered from ninja-fatigue. Kind of like zombies today. With the ongoing revival of everything 80s I guess it was only a matter of time before filmmakers dusted off their ninja costumes and gave things another go, and in a classic case of Hollywood synchronicity the film Ninja Assassin (starring Korean pop sensation Rain) was released right about the same time as this unrelated direct-to-DVD film, simply titled Ninja. To be honest I'm more interested in this one, since it's directed by Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2) with a long-overdue starring role for his muse Scott Adkins.

In this film Adkins plays Casey, taking part in the great Hollywood tradition of the caucasian ninja. He was orphaned in Japan after his mother left and his father committed suicide, so the authorities did the responsible thing and put him in a bilingual ninja dojo so he could spend his life learning how to be a deadly assassin. Child services work differently there. He grows up to be the star pupil of the school, even the Sensei's cute daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) has the hots for him, so he attracts the jealous ire of his main rival Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara). When Masazuka loses control during a match with Casey he is banished from the school. Usually in a film like this the hero will stand up for his fellow student, but Casey just sits there while Sensei chews him out.

A few months later, Masazuka, now working as a killer-for-hire for an evil oil corporation, gate crashes a ceremony at the school. He starts talking some shit about the school and the Sensei derisively calls him a "common assassin", which is pretty ironic coming from a ninja. The Sensei knows that Masazuka is really after the Yoroi Bitsu (which I presume is Japanese for "MacGuffin"), a box containing the armour and weapons of the last Koga ninja. To keep it safe he sends it to a Professor pal of his in New York, and sends Casey and Namiko along to guard it. I don't know why Masazuka wants it so bad, since he already has a whole bunch of sweet high-tech ninja gear, like kevlar armour and night-vision goggles. He also uses guns, which is cheating.

For some reason they decided that oil conglomerates just weren't evil enough, so they made the board members part of a secret cult that wears goofy robes and performs occult ceremonies in an underground chamber. They have an endless supply of goons who dress in conspicuous leather jackets that are emblazoned with the cult's symbols and it seems like every time they attack a couple of innocent bystanders get caught in a spray of machine gun fire. Plus they're pretty stupid; in their search for the Yoroi Bitsu they never think to check the university where the Professor works. They are the worst secret cult ever.

This movie is pretty short and very action-heavy. All of the extraneous subplots and side characters that usually pad out a direct-to-DVD action film are removed. Sometimes you think it's going to wander off into a subplot but it doesn't. For instance, while in New York Casey tries to track down his mother, but it turns out that she died from a stroke a few months ago. Boom. Subplot over. I appreciate the stripped-down approach, but it would be nice to have a few more character moments. No one is very memorable, particularly the hero, although I like to think it's part of his ninja subterfuge. What better disguise than a guy with no personality or defining characteristics whatsoever? I liked Namiko but considering she's a highly trained ninja assassin I wish they'd given her more to do. She gets to kick an ass or two, but generally gets beat in every single fight and Casey has to save her. She also gets kidnapped. You know, because she's a woman.

From the moment you see the Yoroi Bitsu you know Casey is going to dump it out like a kid with a toy box and put them to good use. When he finally suits up for the final battle it's Masazuka's high-tech ninja vs Casey's old-school ninja. It would have been cool if they'd included a a horse versus motorcycle chase scene, but since True Lies already covered that terrority I'll let it slide. The final battle is pretty cool and pretty much every single weapon in the Yoroi Bitsu gets put to good use; smoke bombs, chain sickles, nunchaku, swords, blowdarts, bow and arrows etc. I don't know if they should really be using these sacred antique weapons, but they seem to do the trick. There is a lot of cool ninja shit like somersaults and wall-flips and some sweet stunts like jumping over moving cars.

From a pure action standpoint I think this is probably Florentine's best one yet. He takes his typical old-school approach to action cinematography that I really enjoy, with lots of long takes, complex choreography, nice use of slow motion and not a lot of CG. He is always very careful about staging the fight and laying out the geography, so you are never left wondering where somebody is or who is hitting who, even when both fighters are dressed in black ninja outfits. Fights aren't at all "realistic" (whatever that means) but very acrobatic, with lots of flips and crazy flying kicks. Adkins excels at this. It's great when a director has worked with a martial artist for a long time, because he knows exactly how to get the most out of him. Yep, I really liked this one and it's got me super pumped for Undisputed 3.