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.