Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bloodfist 3: Forced to Fight (1992)

Someone done woke The Dragon

Those hoping to see the continuing adventures of Jake Raye may be disappointed to discover that Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight has absolutely nothing to do with the first two movies apart from Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Assocation World Light Heavyweight Champion). It was originally intended to be released under the title Forced to Fight but the first two movies did well enough at the box office that this movie was shoehorned into the series.

Given it's origin, it's not surprising that this movie is a bit of an anomaly in the Bloodfist series. For instance, I believe it's the first and only film in the series that begins with a prison rape. The perpetrator is cell block kingpin Luther and, unfortunately for him, the victim is friends with Jimmy Boland (Wilson). Jimmy interrupts Luther's crazy rape face by dramatically throwing open the door while some squealing guitars let you know it's ass-kicking time. Luther stabs Jimmy's friend right in front of him (who is not enough of a friend to get a name) so Jimmy does some punching and Luther catches a shiv to the kidneys.

Unfortunately this incident is captured on closed circuit camera just as the warden is giving a guided tour to the press. As punishment, Jimmy is sent to Cell Block C, which is apparently even worse. From here I expected this film to turn into an underground prison fighting movie, like the Undisputed series, but it's a little more serious minded than that. In fact there's only two other names in the credits with martial arts bonafides, Stan Longinidis (K.I.C.K. World Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion) and Pete "Sugarfoot" Cunningham (World Kickboxing Association World Super Lightweight Champion) and both have fairly minor henchmen roles despite their top billing. It actually has actors and seems like it took longer to write than it did to watch. Like I said, it's an anomaly.

Apparently killing Luther cut off drug supplies for the cell block, so Jimmy doesn't exactly get a warm welcome. A friend of Luther named Blue (Gregory McKinney) is out for revenge and Jimmy earns the ire of a white power gang when he rejects an offer of friendship from their leader Wheelhead (Rick Dean). The only person who gives Jimmy the time of day is a creepy sex-offender called Diddler, whom Jimmy casually calls by his nickname as if he has no idea what it means. Under the protection of the warden, Luther and Blue join forces against Jimmy. Consequently Jimmy is coerced to skirmish and we all learn a few lessons about race. For instance, I learned that black people think that white people "smell like dogs after they get out of the shower". And also that dogs shower.

What I liked about this film is that the bad guys are little more nuanced out than usual. I liked the part where Wheelhead relates a childhood story of his mother making him grilled-cheese sandwiches, and even though Diddler is an unabashed pedophile (there's even a scene where he ogles a little girl in the visiting room while creepy music plays) he's treated with an unusual amount of sympathy and even allowed a little redemption arc. How often does that happen in a genre film, let alone in a Bloodfist film?

Jimmy kinda lucks out in that his cellmate is Stark, a Malcom-X-loving, self-taught lawyer who is greatly respected by the other prisoners. He's played by Richard Roundtree, which is awesome, and he gives what is maybe the best performance in the whole Bloodfist series. Stark introduces Jimmy to a multi-racial group of peaceful prisoners who hang out in a rooftop garden utopia. Somehow they have access to gardening equipment, deckchairs, televisions and enough cooking materials for the goofy Italian stereotype to make them baked ziti every day. It makes prison life look pretty cool. They even get to watch Corman's own TNT Jackson on movie night.

I don't think this movie is a particularly realistic depiction of prison life, to be honest. It seems to be some sort of "Free Range" prison, where inmates are free to roam anywhere they please. They have unfettered access to gasoline and sharpened tools and they are even allowed to start small fires in their cells. Everyone seems to be armed with a shiv, sometimes two. There's maybe two prison guards in the whole complex and although the warden claims that the place is automated to the point that "one man does the job of a dozen" it all seems pretty low tech and more like two men doing the job of nobody.

Like all protagonists of prison movies, Jimmy is innocent of his crime. Apparently he was involved in a bar-room brawl that got out of hand, and the police blamed him because of his mixed-race heritage. You know those half-Japanese guys, always stirring up trouble. When Jimmy complains to Stark about being a victim of racial prejudice I think Stark displays surprising restraint in not telling Jimmy to go cry him a fucking river.

Even though it's full of prison movie cliches (is there a riot at the end? Maybe. Okay, yes) I kind of liked this one. The fighting is infrequent and not particularly well choreographed, but it didn't bother me too much since that clearly wasn't the priority. That makes it pretty unusual as a Bloodfist film, and so unfortunately Roger Corman's cunning ruse to slip this film in under the Bloodfist banner backfired. The film did poorly and Don "The Dragon" Wilson was sentenced to Direct-to-Video prison for a minimum of five Bloodfist sequels. A harsh sentence, but fair. The Bloodfist movies never really belonged in the cinema.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Bloodfist II (1990)

No shotguns allowed, Don! You're destroying
the sanctity of this brutal deathmatch!

Apparently after winning the Red Fist tournament Jake (Don "The Dragon" Wilson, World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) returned to America and became a professional kickboxer. I guess he got over that whole missing kidney thing. During his championship bout he accidentally kills his opponent so he vows to never fight again, complete with a cry of "NEVER!" and the ceremonial tossing of his championship belt into the crowd. Two years later he's living in a crappy apartment and sleeping with convincing-looking skeezy prostitutes. He gets a phone call from his old friend Vinny Petrello (Maurice Smith, World Kickboxing Association World Heavyweight Champion) who has gotten himself into a few money problems in the Phillipines. Naturally it's up to Jake to pack his bags and head off to Manila. Again.

In typical Don "The Dragon" Wilson fashion, Jake heads straight from the airport to an attempted mugging. I do like that the thugs attempt a surprise attack by kicking a soccer ball at his head. That's some weak-ass shit, muggers. Jake shows them up in the next scene, at the gym where Vinny was last spotted. One of the guys there says to Jake that he "only talks with fighters, you dig?", so Jake kicks the punching ball so hard that it breaks off it's chain and hits a guy in the boxing ring in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. He was wearing headgear too. That's a move both baller and off the chain.

Afterwards Jake confronts the owner of the gym, a weasely German nerd named Dieter. It's pretty clear where this movie's sympathies lie on the jocks vs nerds continuum, because everybody, including the other bad guys, treat Dieter with open contempt. At one point Jake even shouts "Fuck you, geek!" with the same venom you'd reserve for child molesting racists. Dieter calls in his goons and Jake fights and runs and fights and runs, but eventually finds himself drugged and put on a boat with the rest of the gym rats to compete in a high-stakes baking competition where only the most skilled with a piping bag will survive. Nah, just kidding. It's a secret underground fighting tournament.

While the first film was a Bloodsport rip-off, the second does a low-budget riff on Enter the Dragon. The tournament takes place on a secret island which is ironically named Paradise, although thanks to Black Dynamite I can't think think of it as anything other than Kung Fu Island. Joe Mari Avellana returns as the main villain, although he's playing a different character, a Bond-like villain named Su. Cris Aguilar also returns as one of Su's henchmen. If Jake notices all these villainous doppelgangers running around he doesn't say anything.

The other competitors are mostly real-life martial artists, including Timothy Baker (International Karate Champion World Karate Champ), James Warring (World Kickboxing Association World Cruiserweight Champion) and Richard Hill (International Sport Karate Association World Welterweight Champion). I really liked these guys. They aren't actors or pretty-boys but they're likable and there's a cheerful, ramshackle charm to their performances.

Jake manages to escape pretty early on, busting his way out of the most pathetic shackles ever, and spends a good chunk of the movie Die Harding his way around Su's mansion. He's helped out by a hot girl named Mariella (Rina Reyes), who is in league with Su at first but eventually falls for Jake's wooden charms. When he first meets her she is demonstrating her flexibility in a shiny leotard, just like his love interest in the first film. He's got a type, I guess. She turns out to be Su's daughter, which dumps all sorts of subtext onto an earlier whipping scene that I don't want to think about.

There are some pretty funny cartoonish touches to this film. Jake is able to get the drop on the guards over and over again, usually by tiptoeing a couple of steps behind them like Wile E. Coyote. My favourite part is where Vinny, who is working for Su as it turns out, comes up with an ingenious "plan" to stop Jake. He lures Jake down a hallway and around a blind corner and then, hidden off-screen, swings out with a plank of wood and knocks Jake unconscious. Ah, the old plank-to-the-face trick.

It turns out that Su and Dieter have developed a super-steroid which turns his fighters into grunting, indestructable death machines. Su intends to force the fighters into death matches with his 'roid-monkeys, providing entertainment for the standard assortment of rich fucks as well as giving a demonstration of the super-steroid to his investors. Su is very traditional about his deathmatches, with uniformed, spear-wielding guards and the whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down death signal. Of course it's the black guy who gets the thumbs down.

I always like watching the crowd in these death arena fight movies. It's mostly businessmen in suits, as you'd expect, but there's always a few old women and middle aged tourists mixed in among them. It's always funny watching some middle-aged accountant-looking dude screaming insanely as a muscleman dispatches his opponent with a Bolo-style neck stomp. I'd like to think it's a commentary on exploitative tourist culture, but really I think it comes down to whatever extras they could rustle up on the day.

Jake's final showdown with Vinny seems to mirror the kickboxing match that opens the film, with Vinny ultimately badly beaten and barely on his feet. You might assume that the residual guilt would make Jake pull his punch or otherwise hesitate in killing his friend, but instead he executes a lethal flying kick that snaps Vinny's neck. It's pretty weird. I suppose he assumed that Vinny was going to do that whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing.

Afterwards Jake has a fight with Su that goes through his laboratory, right through his house and onto the balcony. There's a pretty funny part where Jake goes apeshit and tosses aside a table that is clearly made of rubber. Su actually does do the whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing, so Jake kicks him over the balcony ledge. If only he had some rubber lawn furniture down there he might have survived. I did like how all the good guys silently stand over Su's dead body for about three seconds before leaving. These Bloodfist films are less than 85 minutes long, so there's no time for dénouement.

Actually there's barely time for anything in this film except for fighting. From start to finish I don't think the film goes more than ten minutes without a fight. I like the way they separate Jake and the other fighters so they can cut to one of the deathmatches after each chunk of exposition or embarrassing romance scene. Usually in these films they have one long string of fights at the end, which gets dull quickly. The choreography is much improved over the first film too, with some cool techniques and a nice sense of rhythm.

I liked this movie better than the first, mostly because it had a similar setup but ditched everything non-fight related. No more boring crime-solving where Jake tries to solve a mystery that we already know the answer to. No more boring training montages where we watch Jake spend five minutes running up a hill in high-waisted pants. Just more of what we came to see 1) blood and 2) fists. If you like both of these things and you've got a high-tolerance for direct-to-video crappiness, then check out Bloodfist II.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Bloodfist (1989)

Blood? Check. Fists? Check.

Roger Corman isn't one to sit idly by while a popular cinematic fad runs it's course, and Bloodfist was his attempt to cash-in on the recent success of kickboxing movies, Van Damme's Bloodsport being the most obvious influence. I would have liked to be in on the meeting where they decided on the title. "Blood... fist?" "Sure, why not? Let's go get hammered." Bloodsport, Kickboxer and even Shootfighter make some semblence of sense in context, but Bloodfist just hastily throws together two fight-related words and calls it a day. This half-assed approach extends to most aspects of the film.

During the opening credits, each of the principal actors are listed by name and martial arts credentials, a trend that would continue throughout most of the series. I like it. The filmmakers are letting you know up-front where their priorities are. Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Jake Raye, part-owner of a small boxing gym. He is a boxing coach, having retired from professional fighting after donating a kidney to his half-brother. He says that fighting with one kidney is suicide, but that hasn't stopped his brother from competing in underground fighting tournaments. I can only assume that Jake's brother had two perfectly healthy kidneys and Jake donated a third to make him an unstoppable fighting machine. Then again, this whole kidney thing is never mentioned again, so who knows?

Jake gets a phone call from Manila stating that his brother has been found beaten to death in an alley and could he please come and collect the body because it's stinking up the joint. Within a few minutes of arrival, Jake (looking completely inconspicuous in his Hard Rock Cafe LA t-shirt) is witness to several acts of street crime, including an attempted theft of own his suitcase which he foils by kicking. When he gets to the police station the police chief nonchalantly hands him an urn of his brother's ashes and tells him to be on his way. Seems a little premature for cremation, but at least Jake can take him back as carry-on luggage. The police seem spectacularly uninterested in solving the murder, so Jake does some investigating and finds out his brother was involved with the Red Fist Fighting Club, a organisation that stages one of those high-stakes underground fighting tournaments for the super rich.

Jake meets a wise martial arts master named Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana) who offers to train him for the tournament so he can find his brother's killer. Jake also meets another American fighter named Baby (Michael Shaner), who is ostensibly comic relief but mainly an annoying asshole. Baby is followed around by this mute Filipino girl who sleeps with him and makes him breakfast before leaping out the window, so I guess she's pretty much the perfect woman. Jake also finds a love interest, Baby's sister Nancy (Riley Bowman). She's a dancer (read: stripper) and when he first meets her she's dancing on the roof in a purple leotard to a terribly synthesised Asian pan flute. She's trying to get a job as a translator and she's always listening to language tapes on a walkman, even when they are on dates and during Jake's death matches, which strikes me as pretty rude.

All of the cliches are present and accounted for. Kwong puts Jake through several gruelling training montages while the competition is whittled down to a few final contenders. Rob Kaman (World Kickboxing Association Junior Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Raton, a self-obsessed Dutch fighter who "uses music as inspiration". Billy Blanks (Professional Karate League World Champion) is great as a fighter named Black Rose. I've always liked Billy Blanks so it's a shame his scenes are pretty short.

Like in Bloodsport there's also an indestructable Asian muscleman who communicates solely in grunts, a genre trope that's always struck me as pretty racist. Here it's fulfilled by Kris Aguilar (Southeast Asia Kickboxing Champion) playing Chin Woo. He's so hardcore that he eats cockroaches instead of squashing them and routinely kills his opponents, which doesn't seem to bother anyone, least of all the police. By the end of the film he has murdered most of the other opponents and beaten Baby into a coma, making him a prime target for Jake's bloodfist.

There's actually a pretty decent twist at the end. Turns out that Kwong has a bizarre scam going where he trains up world-class fighters and then sabotages the final match and bets against them. Seems to me that there would be a lot more money to be made by actually training up world champion fighters, but who am I to question a wise Asian master? There's a really funny part where Jake is suffering the effects of a poisoned mango in his final match with Chin Woo, and Jake's partner tips him off to Kwong's treachery with a hilarious slow motion cookie monster voice. Jake's final fight with Kwong isn't particularly good since Avanella is clearly not a fighter, but that's cool because the rest of the cast are clearly not actors. Acting skills and ass-kicking skills tend to be inversely proportional, so in a movie like this you need to seed the cast with a few actual actors.

Of course a movie like this comes down to the fight scenes and unfortunately they are not that great. The choreography is mediocre and the frequent slow motion only highlights how much the punches and kicks miss their mark. Many of the fights are badly paced, with the two competitors simply trading blows without any sense of momentum. It's a pity, because in several of the fights it's clear that the competitors have the skills to pay the proverbial bills (Wilson vs Blanks is a particular highlight). I guess Bloodfist is a fairly average secret-underground-fighting-tournament movie, but it's watchable and at just a shade over 80 minutes it doesn't waste too much of your time.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Sabat 1: The Graveyard Vultures

I haven't read any Guy N. Smith novels in a while, so you know what that means. Time for me to go on Sabatical...

In the Sabat novels Guy N. Smith attempted to create a memorable lead character that could sustain an ongoing adventure series. Let's face it, Professor Cliff Davenport may be the world's sexiest megacarcinologist, but even the giant crabs tend to outshine him in the personality department. Enter Mark Sabat. Ex-priest. SAS-trained killer. Exorcist. Pipe enthusiast. I don't know if it's a coincidence that he bears a striking resemblance to Guy N. Smith himself, but if he's some sort of wish-fulfillment Mary Sue character it reveals far more about the author than I ever wanted to know.

When the story begins Sabat is tracking down his evil brother Quentin, who is engaging in some sort of apocalyptic black magic ritual. Sabat blows his brother's brains all over the walls but because Sabat's spiritual faith wavered Quentin's black soul still remains, trapped inside him forever. Throughout the rest of the book Quentin telepathically insults and belittles Sabat, trying to break his faith and goad him into suicide, like the worst life coach ever. Quentin is supposed to be the ultimate incarnation of evil, although if that makes Sabat the ultimate incarnation of good then it paints a pretty bleak portrait of humanity.

Sabat has a pretty interesting resume. A mysterious teenage homosexual encounter drove him into the priesthood (I can't wait to read more about that particuar plot point) until he lost his faith and quit. Then he joined the SAS and became an expert killer, until he was dishonourably discharged for having kinky sex with his CO's wife (i.e. being too awesome). Now he's a freelance exorcist, using his powers of astral projection to spy on people doing it and occasionally stop an evil cult from bringing about armaggedon, assuming the local clergy can pony up the cash.

For all his awesomeness, Sabat has one weakness: boners. Any stray sexy thoughts and he enters the bone-zone, even when he's on the astral plane. Just meeting a pretty woman is all but guaranteed to have an erection "straining against the fabric of his pants". Must make for some pretty awkward first dates. Often he's forced to take matters into his own hands, so to speak, and a couple of times it's implied that he spent all night jerking off in bed. It's pretty weird. Is this Smith's idea of an awesome dude? Sabat should really see a doctor. Priapism is a serious condition.

Another thing about Sabat is that he's alarmingly callous about death. There's a strange bit where Sabat plows his car into a random motorcyclist while he is speeding to the rescue. The guy is eviscerated in the crash, spilling his guts all over the road, and Sabat doesn't even slow down. He chalks it up to an act of God and leaves it to some other motorist to call in the authorities. Who do you think you are Sabat, Halle Berry? Motorcycle Guy's connection to the plot is extremely tangential, so the only point of that chapter seems to be to illustrate that Sabat is a complete sociopath. Mission accomplished!

In this adventure the Archbishop calls in Sabat to investigate a small village where a pesky Satanic cult are involved in virgin sacrifices and necrophilic orgies. Sabat snoops about on both the physical and astral planes, and there's a pretty cool bit where he has a psychic battle with zombies in the graveyard, cutting them up with a giant crucifix. He psychically-rapes the lead zombie into submission, recognising her as Miranda, a prostitute he met in the pub. Afterwards he shows up at her doorstep and when she tries to kill him he rapes her for real. It's cool though, he was just doing it to break the spell the cult leader had put over her. You know how it is.

At first this book seemed to be straight up Judeo-Christian good versus evil, but partway through they start casually throwing Voodoo into the mix. I liked the way Sabat interacted with the various Voodoo gods and played them off against eachother, but when the bad guy turned out to be some sort of Satan-worshipping Voodoo priest it all got a bit confusing. There are a couple of gory human sacrifices and a botched demon resurrection. By the end of it all the cult members are dead with hoof prints on their heads, like Satan appeared and delivered unto them roundhouse kicks to the head, Steven Seagal style.

You know, I really liked this book. It's basically everything that makes Guy N. Smith so enjoyably trashy, turned up to eleven. Gory deaths? Check. Strained metaphors? Check. Bizarre sex scenes? Check. Inappropriate boners? Hella checks. All condensed into 160 pages. Mark Sabat makes for a pretty entertaining and memorable lead character, although if you find yourself relating to him on any level then you should probably seek professional help.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Born to Raise Hell (2010)

It's a high-octane, white knuckle thrill ride!
It was clear from the prologue that I was going to have a few problems with this movie. The opening scene features a subtitle that reads "Bucharest, Romania", which is rarely a good sign, followed by a nonsensical voiceover that is clearly not Seagal. Then there is a gunfight with Tony-Scott-on-PCP editing that goes way beyond any hope of visual comprehension. At this point the film was giving me flashbacks to early DTV Seagal like Shadow Man or The Foreigner. Not a good start.

Seagal plays Bobby Samuels, a cop working for the International Drug Task Force (IDTF). He used to be a soldier if Afghanistan, but when he learned how most terrorism is (apparently) funded by drugs he joined the IDTF so he could make the world safe for freedom etc. He also explains that his partner was killed and now he's out for revenge, although if they followed up on that plot thread I guess I missed it.

The main plot reminds me a little of Out for Justice. There's a big shot crime boss, but the main villain is a guy lower down the food chain who is out of control. The guy's name is Costel, and he likes to do home invasions on young rich couples, raping the women and murdering entire families. Costel works for a Spetznaz-trained Russian crime boss named Dimitri (Dan Badarau), but when Dimitri finds out what Costel is up to he is disgusted and wants him dead. At first Seagal is content to arrest Dimitri, but when he gets into a war with Costel Seagal forms an alliance with him. The grudging-respect-between-foes thing. I like that.

This movie was written by Seagal himself and seems to be pretty heavily influenced by his experiences on Steven Seagal: Lawman. There's a lot of cop lingo and gunpoint standoffs with criminals where Seagal shouts things like "lemme see yo' hands, bitch". At one point he shouts "I'm speaking English, it's easy" which seems condescending since he's in Romania. There are several scenes of him chewing out a junior officer for not properly securing suspects or clearing rooms because he was distracted by a woman with awesome tits. It's nothing we haven't seen before in other cop shows, but it's a little more attention to detail than you usually get for this kind of thing. Stuff like that caused the movie to grow on me.

One bit I liked was early in the film where Seagal's team bust into a house to arrest a greasy-haired drug dealer. The guy tries to drive away on his dirtbike (which is parked in his lounge room for some reason) but Seagal rips him from the seat at the last minute, sending the bike careening through a glass window. It's a nice sequence and normally that would be the last we'd see of the criminal, but here Seagal actually arrests him and takes him to the police station for questioning. Seagal gets information out of him not by busting his skull but by calmly explaining the situation. You catch more flies with honey than by breaking their wrists and throwing them through a window, I guess.

I also liked that the bad guys have a bunch of hot women who cook and smuggle their drugs and go on assassination missions. They are like sexy Terminators. There's a really funny bit where the team encounter one while on a covert survellaince mission. She appears right next to their police van like a movie monster and presses her face up against the window while the crew sit there in dead silence like she's the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. I know it's just a way to get a few more hot girls into the movie, but I really like this idea of using supermodels as henchmen. More movie villains should exploit the fact that hot woman can basically do anything they want without consequence.

Seagal has a much younger girlfriend in this one too, and there's even a subplot about how he neglects her and spends too much time with his police work. The film also continues the worrying trend of awkward sex scenes where the girl is bare-ass naked and Seagal is fully clothed. He's wearing a giant kimono/bathrobe/hoodie thing with a dragon stitched on the back. It looks ridiculous but I guess I should be grateful for it. The whole situation is pretty creepy because the girl is tiny compared to him. When he gets on top of her and starts pawing at her with his giant mitts it looks like she's being attacked by bigfoot.

I mentioned it ealier, but there is some shocking editing in this film. Whenever Costel and his men do a home invasion the film turns into an Abode After-Effects disaster, with random skipped frames, slow motion effects, freeze frames and double exposures. There's a lot of superfluous slow motion too. A scene where Costel's crew walk through a nightclub goes on for about three minutes. Gunfights are similarly over-edited, making them unbearable to watch for the most part, although I liked the bit where Seagal blasts the section of wall around a door with a shotgun so he can kick the whole wall in. He even has to pause halfway through so he can reload. I would have just blown the lock out, but I'll concede to Seagal's superior wisdom and police experience.

It's interesting how as Seagal gets older and stiffer they are trying to compensate by making the fights more brutal and violent, and Seagal's fights were always pretty brutal and violent. There are a lot of broken bones and every punch to the face sends a gallon of blood spraying out of the victim's mouth. The fist fights are pretty well directed for the most part. Costel is played by Darren Shahlavi, the guy who played Twister in Ip Man 2, so it would have been cool to see him in an actual fight, but the final showdown makes copious use of stunt doubles and is embarrassingly one-sided. More shades of Out for Justice.

The director is a French stuntman by the name of Lauro Chartrand, who also did some episodes of Seagal's new TV show/DTV movie series True Justice. I can't say I really liked his style, but I appreciate that Seagal seemed to be putting in slightly more effort than usual. Maybe he pounded a few cans of Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt Energy Drink before every take, or maybe the fact that he wrote it himself gave him a little more vigour. Either way it's nice to see him only semi-sleepwalking through a movie. Even if half his lines were dubbed.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Dangerous Man (2009)

Seagal will fuck you up ugly

In a strange coincidence I received DVDs for both A Dangerous Man and A Serious Man in the mail on the same day, which left me with a difficult decision to make. One Coen brothers' black comedy about a Jewish physics professor struggling with his faith. One DTV action film where Steven Seagal kicks Chinese dudes in the junk. A difficult choice for any cinephile, but I think I made the right one.

In the prologue we learn why Seagal is the titular Man. His girlfriend Holly is waiting in her car when she gets attacked by a rapist. Seagal shows up to rescue her and chases him away, but the next day the would-be rapist shows up dead in an alley. Although Seagal swears he is innocent the cops accuse him of being an uncontrollable killing machine (understandable) and lock him up. Cut to six years later and Holly sends Seagal a "Dear John" letter. He must have known this was coming too, because he reads it outside alone in the prison yard at night in the pouring rain. That sort of heavy-handed dramatic context doesn't happen by accident.

It's not all bad news though. The very next day Seagal is released thanks to some exonerating DNA evidence, although it's never revealed who actually killed the rapist or why. He's also offered $300k by Uncle Sam but Seagal refuses, saying he only wants his life back. This is all thanks to the Innocence Project, although if they'd known what he'd get up to afterwards they probably would have reconsidered.

All Seagal wants to do now is drown his sorrows with a bottle of generic bourbon, but you can probably guess how that goes. Liquor store, muggers etc. I did like that Seagal tells the punks that he's going to "fuck [them] up ugly". I especially like that one of the muggers asks him what it means, like he couldn't have discerned its meaning from context. In this case it means that Seagal's going to steal his gun, take the slide off the barrel, repeatedly stab him in the face with the pointy end and then kick him through a window. Which is pretty ugly. Then Seagal calls him a "bitch" and steals his car.

While drinking alone in a parking lot, Seagal somehow gets caught up in a confusingly-edited gunfight between the son of a Russian crime boss, a cop and some Chinese gangsters with a kidnapped girl in their trunk. The girl is named Tia, and she's the niece of a big-shot accountant in China who has the dirt on some high-ranking officials. He was being smuggled to America until the gangsters realised how important he was and held him hostage. Seagal agrees to help the girl save her uncle, but interestingly the reason he helps her is because she says she'll help him leave the country. I don't think I've seen a movie hero with that particular motivation before.

The main bad guy is called Chen and somehow he owns all the local cops. Not just one either, the whole lot. Chen is also involved with a corrupt Chinese military official called The Colonel (played by Byron Mann from Belly of the Beast). I thought it was pretty funny how Chen acts like a bigshot with his nice suits, huge cigars, dancing with hookers etc, but he does it all out of his shitty wood-panelled dockside office. There's a bit where he tries to lure a disinterested Colonel into partying with a hooker by saying she has an "ass like a 10 year old boy", a line which I've heard before but always sticks out to me as unappealing and kind of gross. Anyway, eventually the Colonel turns on Chen and takes over his business.

For a while it seems like they're trying to set up a buddy relationship between Seagal and Sergey, but Sergey is not the most compelling character so they forget about it about halfway through. At one point I thought Sergey was shot by The Colonel's men while he was hanging out with a topless hooker in a pool, but I guess it was some other guy. Seagal is eventually helped out by Sergey's dad, who lives in one of those huge mansions where there's a party full of young, hip people going on 24 hours a day. Seems like it would get pretty annoying after a while, especially since it looks like Vlad is sitting in his office trying to work. By the end of the film Seagal and Vlad take on The Colonel I think, but by this point I was pretty confused. In my defence it was pretty boring.

I liked that The Keeper didn't indulge in the embarrassing DTV tradition of giving Seagal a much younger, hotter girlfriend, even though they had several opportunities to do so. They show no such restraint here. There's a part early in the film where Seagal sits in his stolen car and fondly reminisces about the time his girlfriend stripped butt naked and gave him a lap dance while he sat there fully clothed and fumbled with her boobs. By the epilogue it's implied that he's sleeping with Tia as well, but thankfully their on-screen shenanigans are limited to an awkward hug. Kind of a dick move though, because Sergey saved her life and it seemed like he was sweet on her.

One interesting point is that I think Seagal is supposed to be a Native American. At one point he calls Sergey "white boy", which I thought was just Seagal randomly breaking out into ebonics like he does sometimes. Later on, however, one of the bad guys refers to him as "that Native American". After all the fringed leather jackets he's worn and ancient mysticism he's spouted in his other films, it's weird that this is the one where they decided to go full on Billy Jack. Not that it figures into anything else in the film or is ever mentioned again.

There are a lot of lines that sound really strange and I can't tell if it's because they were poorly written or badly delivered or both. “I will leave you here to get eaten by the fuckin jackals, who are coming soon." Stuff like that. Seagal's delivery is generally pretty mumbly and incoherent, but it must have been particularly bad here because they dub his voice about half the time. At least the guy almost sounds like Seagal. Usually they'll get any old guy to whisper all the lines and call it a day, even though Seagal hasn't done that whispery thing in years.

The gun fights aren't particularly well shot, but they're okay. It's just alternating shots of two guys firing from behind cover until one of them falls over dead. The fight scenes are a little better and are really brutal. Seagal feeds one guy into industrial shredder, kicks another guy face-first into circular saw and pounds a chopstick into a guy's neck. Throughout the whole thing he's invincible like Jason Voorhees. Stunt doubles are used frequently and sometimes it gets a little distracting. One fight is shot through the gap in some shelving so that they don't have to go to trouble of obscuring the double's head through editing. No stunt double for the lap dance scene though. Sometimes you've just got to get your hands dirty.

This one comes courtesy of Leoni Waxman, the same guy who did The Keeper. I still haven't decided which one I like better. This film is superior in terms of quantity and brutality of action, but Seagal only wears his Half Past Dead do-rag. In The Keeper he wears a huge cowboy hat. Clearly further analysis is required.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Keeper (2009)


I've fallen a few movies behind in my On-Deadly-Ground-style spiritual odyssey through the DTV ouvre of Mr Steven Seagal. This one had been sitting on my DVD queue for some time, but I hadn't felt compelled to review it since the two subsequent films (A Dangerous Man and Born to Raise Hell) were still MIA. A year or two later and the Region 4 DVDs have lazily flopped onto Australian shores with all the energy and vigour of DTV-era Seagal himself, so I guess I've got some catching up to do.

In this one he plays Roland Sallinger, Super Cop. As the movie begins, he and his partner raid a drug dealing operation to discover a couple of million dollars in cash. His partner suggests that they help themselves and Seagal refuses, so his partner shoots him in the chest and leaves him for dead. Seagal fakes a coma and steals a gun from his niece, so I figured this film was a Hard to Kill type deal and that his revenge would play out over the course of the film. Instead his partner returns to finish the job that night, so Seagal shoots him and frees up the next 70 minutes of screentime for a completely unrelated plot.

Seagal is forced into retirement as a result of his injuries, sending him into a depression, so he is visited by his niece who says ridiculous yet no doubt confidence-bolstering things like "You're an inspiration to everyone on the SWAT team" and "I've seen you do shit that's beyond belief." It's not quite R. Lee Ermey's "million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos" speech from On Deadly Ground, but it's enough to get Seagal montaging his way back to full health. His state of recovery is symbolised by his knife-throwing abilities, which was neat but I suspect it was because it required as little physicality from Seagal as possible.

The plot starts proper when he gets a call from an old friend in Texas. He wants Seagal to be a personal bodyguard for his daughter, who was recently the target of an attempted kidnapping by some criminals disguised as papparazzi. The bad guy behind the kidnapping attempt is a crooked real estate developer named Jason Cross, who is also a racial separatist although it never comes up as a plot point or is even mentioned again. When Seagal asks why he can't just go to the police, he replies "There are some people who think a man's race should determine his worth. These people control everything. Except me". This apparently explains everything, even though the police seem more eager to nail Cross than Seagal does.

The girl Seagal is looking after is a spoiled heiress, but I liked that they didn't push the Paris Hilton angle too hard. She's reasonably intelligent and acquits herself pretty well during the attempted kidnapping. They could have easily made her into an annoying bimbo, but instead she's sympathetic and even kind of sentimental. At one point she tells Seagal how she kept a gift he gave her when she was a little girl. She tells him that right after drunkenly barfing in an alley, but it was still kind of a sweet moment. I was worried for a moment there because it seems like she was hitting on him, but luckily Seagal Keeps it in his pants.

Her boyfriend is a showboating obnoxious asshole named Mason Silver, who is apparently a professional boxer although he sure doesn't look like one and you never see him do any fighting aside from a brief training scene at the beginning. Seems like a missed opportunity not to have him fight Seagal or at least one of the bad guys. He is a massive douchebag, so much so that you wonder if he's a red herring, but it turns out that he had some dealings with Cross in the past and now he's willing to sell out his girlfriend rather than have his hands crushed by Cross's goons. What a prick.

Actually, Seagal is kind of a prick in this one too. He's a massive dick to a limo driver, flat-out ignoring him when he tries to make conversation and then sarcastically berating him for whistling. It's okay though, because Seagal gains his respect when he stops to help the limo driver's cousin from being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Probably the most dickish moment is when Seagal breaks into Mason's house to question him and kills three of his bodyguards. At first I figured they were Cross' henchmen, but apparently not. Seagal just straight up murdered three dudes for no reason. And the cops don't even care.

The plot is some nonsense about a crooked real estate deal and a hidden uranium deposit, but it's pretty straight forward and I won't bother talking about it. The action is what's important, and it's alright I guess. The film tries it's best to convince us of Seagal's lightning fast aikido moves, but sound design and editing can do only so much. Plus the main bad guy is an old man, so it doesn't really lend itself to a thrilling final confrontation. The gunfights have lots of bloody, overfilled squibs, which is good, but they are over-edited with a general lack of geography. There's also decent car chase, even though it's clear that Seagal was being greenscreened on a soundstage somewhere.

I don't know if it's because I haven't watched these types of films in a while, but Seagal's acting seemed distractingly bad here. He wears a big cowboy hat, uses words like "pod'ner" and speaks a little Spanish, but I think those efforts used up the bulk of his acting abilities. He's never been good, but here he's struggling just to even articulate himself. A lot of his lines are awkwardly phrased, as if he only just glanced at the script and refused to do a second take. His shirts are increasingly oversized and baggy to disguise his weight and his hair is becoming more creepily fake and Dracula-like. It's rough.

That aside though, the quality level isn't among his worst. It gets off to a shabby start, with some obvious dubbing in the opening scene, plus halfway through the film Seagal's character's name changes from "Sallinger" to "Ballinger" for no reason, but at least it mostly makes sense. The plot holes are just plot holes rather than supermassive black holes that threaten to suck the whole movie into oblivion. I guess that makes it less interesting than something completely batshit like Out of Reach, but at least I felt like someone gave a shit. Someone was at least half-assing it, rather than the one eighth of an ass normally given to this kind of thing. Adequate job, guy. You did it.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Rage and Honor 2: Hostile Takeover (1993)

It's been a couple of years since the events of Rage and Honor. Kris Fairchild (Cynthia Rothrock) has made the baffling career move from schoolteacher to CIA agent and Preston Michaels (Richard Norton) is still on the run from the bogus murder charges he was framed with in the first film. Kind of a bummer that Kris didn't do more to clear his name after all they'd been through together, but I guess she's been pretty busy, what with her two whole years of specialised spy training.

For Kris' first mission she's sent to Jakarta, where she's to meet up with a colleague who is investigating a money laundering operation. When she gets there the agent is missing, so Kris is instructed to continue the investigation alone, taking up a temp job at a bank owned by the suspected criminal. While she's there she befriends the bank owner's son Tommy, played by Melrose Place alumni Patrick Muldoon. Kris finds out that Tommy's dad is working for a powerful criminal named Buntao. There's also something about a rival criminal named Dazzo and diamond smuggling etc.

Coincidentally Preston has found his way to Jakarta as well, taking up a part time job as a bouncer/bartender at at Willy's Bar. Willy's Bar appears to be a touristy seafood restaurant and not the kind of place that would require the services of a Swayze-eqsque cooler, but sure enough a bunch of goons walk in demanding protection money. This must happen frequently because the whole time the thugs are roughing up Willy the restaurant patrons don't even bat an eyelid. Eventually Preston starts beating up the goons with anything handy... a fish, an oar, a life preserver etc. Dude could do some real damage in a T.G.I. Friday's.

Tommy just so happens to witness this spectacle and begs martial arts instruction, but Preston refuses. You see, he's a renegade. A lone wolf. You know this because he wears a long trenchcoat and rides a motorcycle. Dead giveaways. Eventually though, Tommy wears him down and Preston takes him under his wing. Tommy even invites Preston to his awesome pool party, which is where Preston and Kris finally meet. Unfortunately it's one of those scenes where Kris is undercover and has to pretend she doesn't know him rather than an awesome mistaken identity fistfight.

So naturally the two of them team-up to take down Buntao, but unfortunately he's a pretty boring villain. I liked the part where he is so happy about his diamond deal that he starts singing, but apart from that he's pretty forgettable. He does, however, have a beefy henchman named Thor who, like Conrad Drago before him, has a kickin' blonde mullet. Thor has one up on Drago though, because his hair is the genuine article and not a ridiculous wig. Early in the film Thor gets out of his car and gives a little hair flip, like he's saying "Fuck you, Conrad Drago. Look at the silkiness, the managability. This is the real deal right here." I don't know what it is with this series and platinum blonde hockey hair, but I approve. At least his haircut is memorable.

I was weighing up whether or not to spoil the film, but I figure it's an 18 year old DTV action film so fuck it. It turns out that the rival criminal Dazzo is actually Tommy working under an alias. Tommy says it took a long time for him to think of the name. He wanted something "snappy and scary", and I guess it is if you find bogans named Darren terrifying, which is understandable. I don't know if it's because my brain automatically switches to standby mode in this kind of thing, but this twist actually caught me by surprise. Once Tommy's true nature as a ruthless criminal is revealed he keeps quoting all these rules of business. You know, "rule one: surround yourself with talent", "rule two: consolidate your assets" etc. It's pretty annoying, so it's probably a good thing that he was only the villian for the last half hour or so.

The final fight takes place at the construction site where they were doing the diamond exchange. It was either that or an abandoned steel mill I guess. Preston's fight with Tommy ends with Tommy hanging off the edge of a big crane. They must have read my review of the first film before travelling back in time to make the sequel, because rather than do the thing where the bad guy attacks when the hero's back is turned, thus sealing his own fate, Tommy just flat-out surrenders. Preston decides to open another Willy's Bar in L.A and reveals to Kris that he's pinched one of the diamonds. She reacts with a sly chuckle which doesn't seem particuarly realistic, but I guess turning a blind eye to diamond theft is hardly the biggest injustice the CIA have perpetrated.

I looked up the director Guy Norris, if only to see if he was any relation to Chuck, and it turns out he's a pretty awesome Australian stunt man. Fucked his leg up pretty bad on Mad Max 2. Not too many director credits, aside from some Australian TV stuff and a martial-arts themed FMV game for the Sega CD (also starring Richard Norton) which looks amazing in a terrible-FMV-game kind of way. Anyway, he does a decent job here. I think the fight scenes are choreographed and shot a little better than in the first one. I especially liked the bit where Cynthia Rothrock headbuts a guy in the nuts. I don't know if she learned that little number during her high-school teaching days or her CIA training, but it sure was effective.

I probably liked this a little more than the first one. The fights were more plentiful, the locations were more interesting and the mullets were more convincing. Rothrock and Norton are good together and this time the quality of acting surrounding them is so egregiously awful (minus one dreamy Patrick Muldoon of course) that they seem quite good in comparison.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Rage and Honor (1992)

I can't go on like this.
Your hair... it's too awesome.

This film is one of a number of Cynthia Rothrock/Richard Norton team-up films that came out in the early 90s. Rothrock plays a school teacher named Kris Fairchild, who spends her evenings teaching underpriveleged kids "the art of martial science". Richard Norton plays Preston Michaels, a cop on transfer from Australia plus part time bodyguard. I don't know which one is Rage and which one is Honor, but they each demonstrate both qualities in abundance when they get into simultaneous yet unrelated brawls in the opening scene; Rothrock gets jumped at an ATM and Norton intervenes when a pimp starts slapping up one of his girls.

The plot kicks off proper when one of Kris' students accidentally films a drug deal gone wrong, implicating a local crime boss and the police department, including Norton who just happened to be there. The kid manages to stash the tape before he is caught and beaten to a pulp, and Rothrock and Norton bump into eachother while they are hunting around the crime scene trying to find it. This leads them to Baby, a former stockbroker who has since taken up the more respectable occupation of vagrant. While trying to track down the tape they run afoul of crooked nightclub owner "Fast Eddie" and the leader of a Warriors-esque all-female street gang named "Hannah the Hun", who has the annoying habit referring to herself in the third person.

You know, it's pretty easy to make fun of haircuts in a film like this. There's always a mullet or two and while these days it's considered a definitive white trash signifier on par with wolf t-shirts or urban wear featuring Looney Tunes characters, people tend to forget that it was quite a fashionable haircut for a decade or so. Even by the standards of the time though, this film features one of the most ri-goddamn-diculous mullets I've ever seen. It's so long and blonde that the albino guy from No Retreat, No Surrender 3 would weep bitter tears of jealousy. If mullets are truly a party in the back, then this guy is rock'n'rolling all night and partying ev-er-y-day.

The haircut in question is worn (and I do mean "worn" because it's an utterly unconvincing wig) by the chief villain Conrad Drago, played by Brian Thompson. He's the usual deep-voiced Frankenstein's monster that Thompson always plays, with an interest in pressure-point based martial arts and black turtlenecks. It also turns out that he is Kris' estranged brother, so I guess he must have changed his last name at some point. He has a partner-in-crime named Rita Carrion (Terri Treas), who manipulates him with the strategic application of blow-jobs. She's a pretty hot redhead and Norton's Angry Police Captain (tm) is played by Daisy Duke herself Catherine Bach, so the movie is pretty much wall-to-wall hot rangers, if that's your thing.

A lot of the time Norton's Australian accent goes unmentioned, but in this film it's explicitly commented upon. Norton uses Australian slang like "stone the crows" and there's a running gag about people asking him how he likes the States so far. Everyone seems to react in surprise when they find out and the bad guys refer to him almost exclusively as "the Australian". It's a little strange as I wouldn't think Australians would be that rare in L.A. The reason he's in the US is because his partner got killed on a drug bust in Victoria. Not because they both rushed in without calling for backup, but because Norton went to call for backup while his partner went in alone. I don't know, I thought it was interesting that his partner was killed because Norton dutifully followed police procedure.

For much of the film Rothrock refuses to fight her brother, but by the end of the film Norton gets a bullet in the thigh (which is completely ignored for about fifteen minutes until it becomes a plot point) and Rothrock is forced to step in and kick ass. They do the standard thing where Rothrock shows some mercy on her brother but he betrays her so she's forced to kill him, a genre trope I'm pretty sick of. Maybe I'm just too much of a pacifist, but I'd like to see more forgiveness and redemption in my action movies. They could finish on a montage of Rothrock and Thompson hanging out as bro and sis; sharing some ice cream, combing eachother's hair, doing charity work together. Finish on a high note, you know? Apart from that oversight, this was a reasonably entertaining DTV actioner.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Thor (2011)

If there were any doubt before, let this movie stand as conclusive proof that I don't know what the fuck I am talking about. Back in my Iron Man 2 review, I said that this was the one part of the Avengers franchise most likely to go tits up. Kenny Branagh has never had great success as a commercial director and Thor's outsized universe of Norse space-gods seems like the kind of Silver Age silliness doomed to epic failure. Yet somehow they turned a pretty good movie out it, grabbing bits and pieces from the comics that worked and grinding down the sharp edges that might make the Thor mythos a little difficult to swallow.

Like in the comics, the pantheon of Norse mythology are more like space-aliens than gods and the realm of Asgard is a glorious kingdom at the nexus of the galaxy where science and magic are "one and the same". Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is soon to be crowned king by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) but in a reckless act of war he spoils the truce between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. Thor is banished to Earth and robbed of the ability to wield the mightly Mjolnir until he is deemed worthy. With Thor stranded on Earth, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) engineers a plan to steal the throne from their dying father. You know, they probably should have seen this coming. He is the god of tricks and deception.

The movie is pretty funny, but it lacks the easy-going affability of an Iron Man. Most of the humour comes from the kind of fish-out-of-water bullshit that they used to like so much back in the 80s (see Masters of the Universe or Beastmaster 2 - The Portal of Time for examples, but it's probably best if you don't) e.g. Thor smashing a mug while demanding more drink or wandering into a pet shop looking for a horse. I chuckled, but part of me resents that kind of nudging and winking. Thankfully there's not too much of it and they don't use it to make any half-assed observations about modern society. More importantly, the parts on Asgard are played completely straight, with all the huge red capes and ridiculous horned helmets intact.

I was skeptical when I heard that Home and Away alumni Chris Hemsworth was playing the God of Thunder, but I've got to admit that he's pretty good in this. As far as blockbuster movie stars go, he's a far more worthy Australian export than, say, Sam Worthington. There's also Natalie Portman, in what seems like her millionth role in the past year, as an astro-physicist named Jane Foster. She's never particularly convincing as a brilliant scientist, and the romance between her and Thor even less so. After seeing her in Black Swan it's kind of disheartening to see her cast as this kind of underdeveloped, action-movie love interest, but I guess Nat's gotta eat. No seriously, she needs to eat. She's lost a lot of weight.

Most of the other actors are pretty good and their characters aren't too annoying. Kat Dennings as grad-student Darcy Lewis had the most potential to be ear-gratingly awful, being a youth-identification character who makes sarcastic quips and references to iPods and facebooks, but she's not in it long enough to fuck it all up. Stellan Skarsgård is good as Jane's colleague and obligatory Scandinavian Erik Selvig. I did like that although he was the first to recognise Thor's story as Norse mythology, but the last one to believe it. Usually this kind of character would be the superstitious foreigner who buys his story straight away. I guess that's because he's a white guy.

Speaking of racism, after all that stupid business with the white supremacists, Idis Elba doesn't get that much to do as Heimdall. Most of the time he's just standing there motionless with a big sword. Hell, when he finally does spring into action he gets frozen into a statue. I liked him, though. By the end of the film it appears he's out of the job so maybe we can get a spin-off movie where he gets a job as a security guard or something. Heimdall: Mall Cop. Jaimie Alexander's Sif adds a female to Thor's bffs The Warriors Three (Volstann, Holgun and Fandral, see imdb for actor's credits) lest we all die of testosterone poisoning, but they mostly hang around in the background until they are needed for the big action sequence at the end.

Far more than Iron Man 2, you can tell that this film was built with the Avengers franchise in mind. The S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff is integrated a lot more seamlessly and all of the little nods and references to other Marvel characters seem more like world-building than obligatory product placement. Having a shared universe is one of the main attractions of superhero comics, so it's pretty exciting to see people tapping that resource for the film adaptations. I'm actually looking forward to the Avengers movie now.

It's got the usual origin story teething problems that accompany any superhero franchise and some of the dialog is pretty bad, but as far as superhero movies go this is one of the better ones. It should feel no shame in clambering over the corpses of your Fantastic Fours, Catwomen and Elektrae, and taking it's rightful place in the pantheon of good superhero movies. I don't know where exactly. Somewhere below Iron Man but above Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk. And that ain't bad.

PS - There is a post-credits Easter egg with Nick Fury, but don't get too excited. It's not particularly surprising or interesting.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

I really liked the beautiful, dialogue-free opening sequence of this film, which shows the chain of tragic events that lead to Baby Doll (Emily Browning) being committed to a mental institution by her evil stepfather and a crooked orderly (Oscar Isaac). As I've explained in other reviews, I'm a sucker for gothic, spooky mental institutions, so I was a little disappointed when it turns out that this setting is just a bookend for the bulk of the movie, which takes place in a Weimar-esque bordello of Baby Doll's own imagination (I think) where all of the orderlies, doctors and patients are recast as brutal pimps, sympathetic madams and dancers/prostitutes. Baby Doll is but one of the pretty young girls with silly names like Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie etc, who are forced to dance for the amusement of rich assholes and, by PG-13-approved implication, bone them.

It turns out that Baby Doll has a super power to hypnotise men with her seductive dancing, so she comes up with a plan to distract the clients while the other girls gather up items for their escape (a map, a lighter, a key etc). It's a repetitive set-up that seems like a perfect basis for a shitty Hollywood musical, but instead of dance sequences, Baby Doll's internal struggle on the dance floor is symbolically represented by crazy action sequences involving giant stone samurai, Steampunk WWI soldiers (incorrectly identified as Nazis by many reviewers), orcs, robots and whatever other crazy shit that Zack Snyder thinks is awesome. Scott Glenn plays a wise mentor who appears as an expository device to set up each of her fantasies, which play out like mini (wo)men-on-a-mission action movies with Baby Doll and the other girls.

So, it's basically a series of crazy fantasy sequences that take place inside another fantasy sequence that takes place inside the mind of a young girl in a mental institution that is so exaggerated and stylised it might as well be a fantasy sequence. There's about ten levels of fantasy without any recognisable reality to grasp onto, and it's never really clear how or if things that happen in Baby Doll's head affect the real world. With Inception Nolan was careful to lay all this shit out, but Snyder just dumps you in it and expects you not to notice/care. I really enjoyed the action sequences as pure spectacle, but without consequence it's hard to build the tension and suspense that underlie a truly great action movie.

It's also pretty grim and relatively joke-free. Some people have complained about that but I really appreciate the sincerity of it. It's a lot easier to couch your movie in cynicism and self-referential snark, lest people accuse you of "taking yourself too seriously", but Snyder laid everything out in the open and exposed himself to the world. Even the creepy, fetishy bits that he probably should have kept private, like underage-looking girls swordfighting in miniskirts, pigtails and high heels. This movie has been accused of being a cynical attempt to bait the Comic Con crowd (a gamble that seems less and less of a sure thing every year) and maybe it was for some people higher up the food chain, but for Snyder it seems like it was a labour of love.

It doesn't surprise me that this film is getting terrible reviews, but it does surprise me how vitriolic a lot of them are. Yeah, the film has plenty of problems, but a lot of internet nerdos are acting like Zack Snyder fucked their dog and wiped his dick on their mint condition Star Wars action figures. Somewhere along the line people turned on Zack Snyder, and I don't really know why. Against all odds I actually liked the Dawn of the Dead remake, I enjoyed 300, I thought Watchmen was pretty good. None of them were all-time classics, but I can list plenty of things I liked about them. I didn't see that owl movie, maybe that's what did it. Some people are even dropping the atomic bomb of film criticism and comparing him to Michael Bay. Come on guys, I rolled my eyes as much as anyone when they called him "the visionary director of 300" on movie posters, but at least the guy knows how to put an action sequence together.

Anyway, I doubt Snyder-haters will have their minds changed by this film, as it's full of trademark Snyder-isms such as over-obvious, distracting musical choices and lots of slow motion ramping. Haters of the latter will be particularly annoyed by an action sequence where the girls fight robots on a train, which is a solid ten minutes of slow motion leaping and shooting, all done in one continuous take thanks to the sorcerous magic of pixel wizards. I loved it though, as I did all the action sequences. They are more chaotic than in his other films, but really well choreographed and edited. Snyder has this action stuff on lockdown. If he could figure out human emotion he would be unstoppable.

A lot of criticism seems to be centered about the sexual politics of the movie too. Snyder may have invited it on himself by using the word "empowerment" about fifty times in every press interview, but I don't really know why this is the movie where people have decided to take a stand. They showed the trailer for Furious Five before this movie, which had girls in shiny booty shorts waving their asses at the camera every four seconds (I timed it). Just because this film is centered around women people want to unpack every bit of creepy subtext. Honestly I think Snyder genuinely cares about these characters, but he also likes the aesthetics of comics books and anime, including pretty girls in skimpy outfits making cool superhero poses. This is something we have in common.

This is Snyder's first film that isn't an adaptation or a remake, and he must have sensed it would probably be his last because it seems like he put everything he had into this one. It's not great and it's too shallow to have any lasting impact, but I like that it's so ambitious and extreme. Snyder may not have proven himself beyond being, as every review seems to call him, a "bold visual stylist", but at least I dig his style and I can respect the care that went into it. Next it's back to adaptation with his Superman movie, which should at least have one up on Superman Returns in that it's bound to feature Superman actually punching a guy.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Ip Man 2 (2010)

Sammo Hung, pushing 60 and still kicking ass.
Shame on you, Seagal.

Ip Man
was a pretty great kung fu film and a big international success, so it's not surprising that they made both a sequel and a (Donnie-Yen-less) prequel. The sequel picks up a few years after the first film, with Ip Man and his family packing up their shit and moving to Hong Kong, where Ip Man hopes to open up a kung fu school and teach Wing Chun. His first student is a cocky young guy named Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), who agrees to call him master only after he defeats him and his friends in a fight. Ip Man is still untouchable, so soon he has a modest class of students. Still no money, though; he refuses to press his students for tuition payments even though he is destitute and his wife is up the duff.

So, like in the first film, Ip Man is a really nice guy, always trying to talk his way out a confrontation instead of getting into a fight. When Wong gets kidnapped by some rival students Ip Man is unwilling or unable to pay, but he still shows up to their hideout and tries to talk his way out. Jin Shan-Zhou (Fan Siu-Wong), a villain from the first film but now reformed, helps them escape. Now Ip Man finds himself an enemy of a coalition of kung fu schools, led by Master Hong (Sammo Hung).

Sammo Hung choreographed the excellent fights in the first film, so it's pretty cool to see him get a major role in the sequel. The highlight is during a scene where Ip Man is forced to fight all the masters of the different kung fu schools on a rickety tabletop without being knocked to the ground. I was very impressed by the Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung fight in 2005's S.P.L., and this rematch is just as impressive. There's a fair bit of wirework and creative editing, but that's understandable given Hung is pushing 60.

One of the things I liked about the first film was the relationship between Ip Man and his wife. It was a little more progressive and enlightened than I'm used to seeing in kung fu films, even if it did end with her realising that his kung fu is what's really important. Lynn Hung is still here, but she spends most of the movie in the background, pregnant and penniless. The "kung fu > family" message is re-iterated at the end, and this time she even refuses to let him know when she goes into labour because it would interrupt his training. She even gives birth while he is fighting. I don't know where they can go from here. Maybe for the next film she can throw one of their babies in the ring to distract his opponent.

Despite that, family is still a theme. Simon Yam has a small returning role as Ip Man's friend Zhou, who has since been shot in the head by the Japanese and is now a mentally deficient street bum, being cared for by his son as best he can. Fan Siu-Wong is now a good guy, attributing his change of heart to getting married and having kids. Sammo Hung has a whole bunch of kids and after he almost knocks over a fat little kid licking a huge lollipop, Ip Man manages to squash their beef by convincing him that family is more important than their grudge match.

With the Hong/Ip Man conflict resolved, they introduce the main villain, a Western boxing champ named Twister. Yes, like the first film it's about protecting the dignity of the Chinese from attacks by vicious foreigners, and if anything it's even more shamelessly nationalistic. It's not hard to see why this film got the rubber stamp of approval from the Chinese goverment. I mean, we are talking Rocky IV levels of heart-swelling patriotism.

Usually I can put up with this kind of thing (God knows Hollywood has produced worse propaganda) but somehow this one made me feel a little icky. At least with the first film there were some honourable Japanese to offset the villainous ones; here the British are almost uniformly evil. After Twister kills an opponent in the ring the British are more upset about bad publicity than anything else, and give a press conference where Twister makes a condescending speech about how the Chinese are too weak to withstand Twister's mighty punches.

At some stage I heard that this film was going focus on the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee, but he only gets a tiny cameo at the very end, like Nick Fury appearing at the end of Iron Man. Wong brings a very young Bruce Lee to see Ip Man about training, but Ip Man tells him he is too young and that he should come back when he's a little older. The kid copies all of Lee's mannerisms, including the cocky chin tilt and the thumb-flick, and to be honest it's a little over-the-top. At least they didn't dress him in giant sunglasses and a Game of Death yellow jumpsuit. Actually no, that would have been kind of cool.

When I reviewed the first film I said that it would be a pretty enjoyable biopic even without all the awesome kung fu fights, but I'm not sure I can make the same claim about the sequel. In a lot of ways it's just a rehash of the same plot. The acting is still good and it's hard to ignore the greatness of the fights, but the drama just didn't grab me by the balls. Maybe just one ball, and even then it was the kind of weak and feeble grip unworthy of any Wing Chun practitioner. Hopefully the next film will be a two-fisted, ball-crushing death grip.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Centurion (2010)

They may take our lives,
but they will never take our eyeliner!

It's pretty clear by now that Marshall is perfectly happy making genre flicks that are heavily influenced (or in the case of Doomsday, brazenly plagiarised) from the beloved films of his youth, but a certain running theme is beginning to stick out at me. I think Neil Marshall might hate Scottish people. First you had Dog Soldiers, where the Scottish Highlands were little more than a terrifying, lycanthrope-infested wilderness. Then there was Doomsday, which suggested that, if left to their own devices, Scotland would revert to a Mad Max style post-apocalyptic hellscape within a few decades. I think The Descent was relatively free of Scot-bashing, unless those pasty underground mutants were supposed to be Scottish, which is debatable. Finally we have Centurion, where a small group of Roman soldiers suffer an onslaught of vicious, bloodthirsty Pict savages.

The film is based on the myth of the Ninth Legion, who were supposedly sent to Britain in 117 A.D. to suppress the Picts and never returned. Michael Fassbender plays the Centurion Quintus Dias, who is one of only a handful of survivors after a vicious Pict ambush in the Scottish Highlands leaves his entire Legion dead. The Picts capture their General, played by Dominic West, and after a failed rescue attempt the shrinking group of soldiers are forced to flee back to Britain. They are pursued by band of Picts, including a brilliant tracker named Etain, played by Olga Kurlyenko.

I guess it's a little like Apocalypto in that it takes an epic historical setting and uses it to tell a relatively small chase thriller, and like that film it's really fucking bloody. There's barely a few minutes without somebody getting decapitated, disembowelled or stabbed in the dick, often in slow motion. Sadly a lot of it is CG, which doesn't really have the same visceral impact. There's also a pretty crazy gross-out moment where they kill a deer and eat the half-digested vegetation out of it's stomach. I probably would have eaten the meat instead, but that's just me.

The idea of heavily-armed Imperialists pushing into unfamiliar territory and facing resistance from scrappy locals probably sounds pretty familiar (look at text upside down to reveal secret hint: bɐɹı). The parallels aren't something that's dwelled upon, but I did like how both sides of the conflict were fairly well represented. The Roman soldiers are a varied lot with different backgrounds and motivations, and the Picts are humanised without turning them into toothless Noble Savages. In a situation like this you are always going to side with the Romans, but the film doesn't let you forget that they're fighting for a pretty shitty cause.

I don't want to oversell this aspect to it, though. At it's core it's still a two-dimensional genre flick. The Picts are barely differentiated and the Romans are the typical war movie stereotypes (the brute, the joker, etc). There is a pretty good cast (David Morrissey, J.J. Feild) who do the best job they can, but there isn't a lot of dialogue and what is there is pretty ripe. A lot of the dramatic moments fall flat, especially the tragic backstory about Etain. She is also mute, which had me wondering whether it was a conscious character choice or a surreptitious dig at Kurlyenko's acting abilities.

Also, at about an hour into the film they awkwardly attempt to shoe-horn in a love interest. Imogen Poots plays a Pict woman who was banished from the tribe for practicing witchcraft (probably something to do with her unnaturally nice skin and teeth) so now she lives alone in the wilderness. She's no friend to the Picts or the Romans, but Quintus Dias charms her with his knowledge of the Pictish language. She is in the film for all of five minutes, but she must have made an impression because he falls deeply, madly in love and (spoiler alert) runs away at the end to live with her.

I think we all know by now that Marshall and his team have some serious technical chops, and here they turn out a really nice looking film on a relatively low budget. It borrows the gritty look of a lot of modern historical films, making everything dirty and bloody with all the colour leeched out of it. The cinematography is great, with a lot of sweeping helicopter shots of the heroes running through fields and snowy mountains. The fight scenes are well constructed and the editing is vastly improved over Doomsday, which I felt substituted frantic editing for good choreography.

I didn't lose my shit over this film, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a little predictable and formulaic, but as a pure action film it works really well, striking a good balance between grittiness and entertainment. I also appreciate the mass amounts of blood and gore. I like how the political subtext hums along in the background with no elaboration, and unlike a lot of historical films it isn't a bladder-busting, butt-numbing three hour epic. Probably doesn't reach the heights of Dog Soldiers or The Descent, but it's a perfectly good film.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Black Swan (2011)

Natalie Portman plays a dancer in a New York City ballet company. The director selects her for the challenging lead role in a new production of Swan Lake (real original, guy), a dual role that requires her to play both the innocent White Swan and the more seductive Black Swan. While her icily perfect technique makes her ideal for the White Swan role, he remains unconvinced that she has the passion and sensuality to play the Black Swan. Soon she's competing for the role with a rival ballet dancer (Mila Kunis) whose extroverted personality (ie sluttiness) make her far more suited to play the Black Swan. With opening night looming, Portman must explore the dark side of her personality, lesbianism etc. At the end she may or may not turn into a black swan.

Wow, this movie was not what I was expecting at all. Some of the criticisms I'd read made this film sound like a ridiculous piece of showbiz camp, like it's Showgirls or something. I was expecting something super melodramatic and over-the-top, like Requiem for a Dream, but for most of the film it's actually a lot closer to The Wrestler. Lots of raw, handheld camerawork, following Natalie Portman as she walks from place to place, like a creepy stalker. I think Aronofsky actually considers this film a companion piece to The Wrestler, and like that film it's about a performer pushing themselves to the breaking point. It also reminded of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, which I mention only because a saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Also like The Wrestler, it's full of tiny, interesting glimpses into her profession. I don't know how true-to-life it is, but it makes professional ballet look pretty shitty. Portman's got an eating disorder and can't eat a wicked-awesome cake. She fucks up her joints and gets lots of injuries. She's also acutely aware that her time to become a big success is rapidly running out. She's replacing a ballet dancer played by Winona Ryder, who is kicked out of the company due to her age and has a nervous breakdown. Is it making anyone else feel really old that Ryder is getting roles as an over-the-hill ballet dancer and Spock's mum? Anyway, if your 8-year-old daughter (or son) has unrealistic dreams of becoming a prima ballerina, this movie would make a good reality check. Just fast forward the bit where she has a sex scene with Mila Kunis. That's for adults.

This is mostly Portman's movie, but the rest of the cast is great too. Barbara Hershey plays her overprotective mother, a failed ballet dancer who hopes to live vicariously through Portman's success. It's easy to go overboard with this type of thing, but I think they struck a good balance. She's clearly unhinged (her bedroom is plastered with creepy paintings of her daughter) but she's not a cartoon villain. You never really doubt that she loves her daughter, and when she worries about her changes in behaviour you feel it too.

Vincent Cassel is also great as the director of the play, a total sleazebag who uses his position to take advantage of her. You can see where he's coming from when he says that she lacks sensuality and I think he believes his own bullshit when he feels her up during practice to try and bring out her passion. He's clearly across the line though. Hell, at one point he gives her a homework assignment to go home and masturbate, and one morning, just as she's about to complete her course requirements (I give her a B+) she rolls over to see her mother asleep in a chair across the room. Now that's scary.

This film has the kind of psychological horror I really like. No supernatural bullshit, no half-assed rationalisation, no bombardment of ridiculous twist endings, just a good old-fashioned descent into insanity. There's a few fun twists along the way, but unless you're particularly credulous I doubt you'll suspect there's anything going on beyond the psychological. There's a bit of Cronenberg body horror, especially towards the end, but for most of the film it's very subtle. A broken fingernail here, a mysterious scratch there; the kind of everyday injuries you wouldn't think too much of. I like how it all ties into her history of self-harm too. At least, until she starts growing feathers out of her back. She should probably see a doctor about that one.

I imagine this film will get an oscar or two, as it's so actor-centric and actors love to imagine that their work is something sexy and dangerous. I doubt it'll get Best Picture as it's a little too genre-y compared to something safe like The King's Oscar Bait, but if Natalie Portman doesn't win Best Actress or Best Female Actor or Best Actor With a Vagina or whatever they're calling it now, I'll eat my hat and shoes. Sure she did a lot of Actorly things like lose weight and train in ballet for a year, but really it's her performance that's incredible. I've never really been sold on her as an actor, but she blew me away with this one. When she finally turns into the Black Swan you know it, and it feels completely earned.

I thought this movie was super-fucking-good, probably the best movie I've seen all year. It's definitely a genre film though, so if you're expected a completely grounded, realistic character drama then you'll probably be one of those people decrying it as "too silly". I don't know if a steady diet of ridiculous genre films has made me thoroughly immune to movie silliness, but I got swept up like a motherfucker. I was expecting something melodramatic and operatic, which it was, but I was caught off guard by how visceral and immersive it was. This film did the best job of putting me in a character's head than I've seen in ages. Really good shit.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Machete (2010)

It would have been cool if he had a
gun that shoots machetes

Sorry everyone, I guess I'm partly to blame for Machete flopping. I could blame it on hype burnout or the mediocre reviews or having to wait three fucking months for it to arrive in Australian cinemas, but really I just never got around to it. Mea culpa. Really though, did anyone expect it to do well? A feature length version of a parody trailer in a movie that was itself a massive flop, starring a guy that most people only know as "that Mexican guy with the bad skin". Rodriguez took a mighty gamble on this film, and I guess he lost, at least financially.

Clearly a Mexploitation (tm Robert Rodriquez) action vehicle starring Danny Trejo is too good a concept to be consigned to a DVD special feature, but expanding a trailer into a feature length film is an inherently risky idea. A trailer is just a collection of cool moments, and you can't sustain that same momentum for 90 minutes. Rodriguez does his best, and I think he does a good job working those iconic moments into the context of a larger story. The main plot is pretty much exactly what was in the trailer. Danny Trejo plays a Federale who flees Mexico after a drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal) kills his family. Working as a day labourer in Texas, he is hired by a sleazy government official (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate an anti-immigration Texan Governor (Robert DeNiro) but he is double-crossed and forced to go on the run. Revenge, etc.

There's not much of a story there, but I've got no problem with that. I'm all about lean, mean action movies that streamline the plot and clock in at just under 90 minutes. Unfortunately that's not too popular these days, so they throw in a whole load of side plots and characters that, while often entertaining in themselves, just seem like padding. I mean, I got pretty excited when I heard about the avalanche of B and C-list celebrities in the cast, but I also caught a faint whiff of desperation, like they were just piling on familiar names for the sake of people who haven't heard of Trejo, plus it makes it almost impossible to balance these characters properly.

Jessica Alba is probably the worst offender as an immigration official who ends up falling for Machete (because of course she does). She has way too much screen time, especially since she can't act. Trailing closely behind her is Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of an underground immigrant support network, although at least she's kind of badass. You've also got Cheech Marin as Trejo's Catholic priest brother, Don Johnson as the leader of a gang of racist border patrol gun nuts, Tom Savini as a bounty hunter and Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's coke-addled daughter (joke goes here). It just goes on and on. I thought this film was called Machete?

I think making those kid-flicks must have done something to Rodriguez' brain. You can see a pretty clear difference between his pre and post Spy Kids career. Grindhouse and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were both overstuffed messes, and only a strict adherence to comic book fundamentalism spared Sin City. This film has the same problem. It starts out with a great action scene; lots of blood, multiple decapations, Steven Seagal speaking Spanish, and a girl hiding a cell phone in her vagina; but after that it wanders off in random directions like it's distracted by shiny objects.

Even if it doesn't all hang together, I can still list dozens of things I liked about the film. I liked the creativity in the violence, such as when Machete gutted a guy and used his intestines to abseil down the wall of the hospital. I liked how Tom Savini's bounty hunter was introduced with a terrible home-made advertisement. One thing I especially loved was Jeff Fahey's performance as DeNiro's scheming, sleazy aide. He nailed the tone perfectly. DeNiro himself doesn't fare so great, playing things a little too jokey and hammy. It's definitely a post-Meet-the-Parents performance.

I remember hearing some right-wingers in the US griping about the film's stance on illegal immigration, which is kind of hilarious. I guess the people who want their dumb action movies to contain right-wing messages only will have to be content with every other action movie ever made. Start with Red Dawn, that's a good one. I thought it was pretty obvious that the political messages in this film were supposed to be exaggerated and extreme, just like in the exploitation films its paying homage too. Like those films it employs a lot of Mexican stereotypes too, like Machete disguising himself as a gardener (although the bodyguard spelling out the satire was a step too far) or marching to war with a fleet of lowriders and rake-wielding Mexican immigrants.

As cool as it was to see Trejo get his due, it would have been nicer if they'd done it a few decades ago. The guy is in his 60s now. He does a good job and looks cool on screen, but that final fight between Trejo and Seagal is mostly just creative editing and stunt doubles. I can't really complain though, as it takes some monster balls to make something targeting to such a niche audience. Good on you, Robert. The end credits optimistically promise two sequels, Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. If they do ever surface it will probably be Direct-To-Video, but to be honest that seems like a fitting home.